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How India's roads are shaping up

The government has often stressed on creating a network of roads that connect all cities and villages through PMGSY and the Bharatmala project. CW finds out how well it’s shaping up

Rural roads, Bharatmala, Ashoka Buildcon, Srei, Ramesh Palagiri, VG Sakthikumar, Schwing Stetter, DK Vyas, Adarsh gautam, A, Action Construction Equipment

For the current government, infrastructure has long been a priority and a critical path to prosperity. In 2000, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA-I) launched the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), a central scheme providing funds for states to connect villages to all-weather roads. Under NDA-II, road construction has been taken up with renewed vigour. The government has, over the last five years, spent more than Rs 80,000 crore on building and upgrading rural roads across the country, even as the PMGSY funding model has changed.

The increase is reflected in road construction numbers. Since 2014, nearly 200,000km of new roads have been built across rural India, according to data presented in Parliament. The point of roads is to connect people and villages. In March 2014, 55% of India’s habitations were connected to a road and this increased to 91% by January 2019, according to PMGSY data provided to Parliament. Only 74% of villages are connected to an all-weather road with more than half (51%) of the country’s small villages (populations of less than 250) adrift from the road network.

Regardless of their impact, rural roads form the most important component of India’s road network. Of India’s 1.7 million km of roads, 73% are rural roads.

Ajay Aneja, CASE Construction.

Ajay Aneja, brand leader, Case Construction, says, “To understand the kind of machines used in building rural roads, it is very important to understand the dynamics of rural roads. They have low traffic with minimal weight and are generally made of earth, gravel and sometimes of bituminous surface. These roads are normally of two-lanes and less thickness. Hence mini/compact machines are used in constructing rural roads. Backhoe loaders, soil compactors, tandem compactors and graders of small size are the kind of equipment used.”

Then came the Bharatmala project – an ambitious programme and the second largest highways construction project in the country since NHDP, under which almost 50,000km or highway roads were targeted across the country. Bharatmala will look to improve connectivity particularly on economic corridors, border areas and far flung areas with an aim of quicker movement of cargo and boosting exports.

Keeping stakeholders happy
Development of roads is good news for equipment makers too. “The ongoing government’s thrust on infrastructure development such as Bharatmala, Sagarmala, urban infrastructure, railways, irrigation, among others will continue to support the demand for construction, mining and allied equipment. This issue will provide an impetus to leverage on the growth opportunities,” says Srei Equipment Finance CEO Devendra Kumar Vyas.

It is a well-known fact that Indian roads need to meet better standards than those existing now. VG Sakthikumar, MD, Schwing Stetter India, says, “The specification for the roads are good and follow international road standards. There are various challenges with respect to methodologies followed in building the road. Similarly, the usage of the road also should be as per the design the road condition and when over load machines are permitted, the road condition deteriorates very fast. So we need a stricter enforcement to use the road as per the design and not abuse it.”
In theory, highways reduce transport costs and connect centres of economic activity. However, globally, there is mixed evidence on whether this boosts growth. 

Adarsh Gautam, ACE.

Adarsh Gautam, DGM, marketing & product support, Action Construction Equipment, says, “These days standards of roads built under NHAI has certainly gone up. One may argue that it is not as per world class standard but surely the quality has improved as compared to what were made couple of decades ago. Roads built under PMGSY or local PWD authority definitely lacks the quality standards as these are built keeping project cost as major consideration. In a developing country like ours affording new and upgraded technologies for road construction would definitely attract huge cost. Due to budget constraints and ignoring the standard procedures, quality of roads has been compromised and therefore you see frequent wear & tear in the bed prepared. With roping of advanced machinery and new technologies, we are sure that in coming times such irritants shall be overcome.”

In terms of the Bharatmala project, it took the authorities two years to draft the detailed project reports (DPRs) for phase I alone. Poor DPRs have been one of the reasons behind delay in execution of highway projects and the government often ends up incorporating supplementary works, which pushes the cost. Amit Uplenchwar, CEO, HCC E&C, says, “Road construction in India has gained momentum in recent years creating new records. According to data released by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, 10,000km of highways have been constructed in the country in last fiscal year (2017-18)  taking the daily average of road construction to 28km per day against the average of 11km in FY2014. The number achieved is the highest ever. One of the reasons is the higher rate of awarding the projects - awarding of highway construction projects went up by 70%, an all-time annual high in FY18, spanning around 7,400km. The projects awarded were worth Rs 1.2 lakh crore. This is against 4,300km projects, worth Rs 59,000 crore that was awarded in FY17.”
In January, NHAI declared HG Infra Engineering Limited an L-1 bidder for an EPC project in Rajasthan under Bharatmala Pariyojana. The cost of the project is Rs 997 crore. The project work includes construction of 8-lane carriageway starting at Haryana-Rajasthan border and ends at junction with SH44 section of Delhi-Vadodara Green Field Alignment (NH-148N) on EPC mode. Harendra Singh, CMD, HG Infra Engineering, said, “Year 2019 began on a positive note. We have been able to bag two back-to-back high value orders in the same month from NHAI. This proves our order domain expertise and strong execution capabilities in the infrastructure sector.”

Satish Parakh, Ashoka Buildcon.

Similarly, Ashoka Buildcon has won a Rs 1382 crore highway contract in Karnataka from NHAI. The contract to build 56km highway stretch is under HAM. The company’s subsidiary Ashoka Concessions Ltd (ACL) had submitted its bid to NHAI for the Tumkur-Shivamogga section of highway from Bettadahalli Shivamogga (Package IV) in Karnataka under Bharatmala project. Satish Parakh, MD, Ashoka Buildcon, says, “There have been delays in awarding contracts. What the government is trying to do is see the land acquisition is expedited even before allotting the work, so unless 90% of the land is clearly available they are not allotting any work. Land acquisition has been the real pain in the system. Earlier they used to allot even before acquisition and acquisition used to be a parallel process during the execution. Now the system is completely changed, they would first acquire the land and then only projects would be Bid out so that is primarily going to help the contractors execute the project faster.”

Barring a couple of identified stretches, all others will have green field alignment, which means these will be new roads. The government has notified higher speed limit for cars at a maximum of 120kmph on expressways. Hitherto, highway construction has mainly been confined to expansion and widening of existing roads.

Some of the identified green field highways include Patna-Rourkela, Jhansi-Raipur, Solapur-Belgaum, Bengaluru-Kadappa-Vijayawada, Gorakhpur-Bareilly, and Varanasi-Gorakhpur. The target date for rolling out these roads totalling around 4000km is 2024.

What has been achieved
In India, there is a general tendency to build roads and then forget about them.  The network of existing highways and expressways built in last two decades is now showing signs of premature failure due to cumulative effect of inadequate maintenance and structural inadequacies to cater the need of increased traffic volume and heavy axle loads.

When one looks at road projects, it is not really the financial feasibility but the economic impact that matters. The economic impact of connecting to every district in India is going to be significantly more than the cost of building the roads. Certainly, land acquisition is expensive but is also the issue of equity. Bharatmala has prioritised projects that have a larger economic impact particularly in terms of connecting economic centres and creating logistic zones around it. So, the impact on trade and on the competitiveness of manufacturing is also going to be significantly large in this programme.

Till April, the government of India had awarded 5,700km of projects under Bharatmala. According to reports, the Centre is working with state governments to address and solve land acquirement issues for this project. Estimated at a cost of Rs 5.35 lakh crore, the mega Bharatmala project aims to construct 34,800km of highways across the country.

Speaking of some of the best ways to construct roads, Ramesh Palagiri, MD & CEO, Wirtgen India, says, “We have been continuously innovating on “How to build better Roads “and here I would like to highlight some of the technologies which are already available and would be relevant for Indian conditions. These technologies would be standard part of Indian highway construction programme in the coming years. In line paving of hot mix asphalt layers, mobile feeder, Road Scan, spray jet paver, double layer pavement quality concrete application, cement stabilised bases/sub-bases, and cold recycling for rehabilitation of existing asphalt highways.

Meanwhile, construction companies are attracting investors given their higher revenue visibility amid reduced hurdles in project execution. According to industry trackers, NHAI has facilitated clearance of more than 80% of the land acquired for execution of projects. This works in favour of construction companies since this was a major hurdle in the past five years.

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October 2020
03 Oct 2020