On the road again: on latest postponement of NH 66 project

After initial plans to widen National Highway 66 were put in place in 2016 for Kerala, a series of delays has led to commuter fatigue and the pollution hazard of traffic jams. John L. Paul reports on why the latest postponement of the deadline is getting people living along the way and those who traverse this road, angsty

Updated - February 08, 2024 03:36 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2024 12:00 am IST

A bridge being constructed parallel to Varapuzha Bridge on the Edapally-Muthakunnam NH 66 corridor.

A bridge being constructed parallel to Varapuzha Bridge on the Edapally-Muthakunnam NH 66 corridor. | Photo Credit: H VIBHU


G.P. Jayachandra Kumar used to occasionally travel by car between Kanhangad in Kasaragod, where his office was located, and Thiruvananthapuram, his native place, until he retired from the Life Insurance Corporation last year. The journey, covering about 540 km, would take 14 hours, forcing him to stay at Guruvayur, in Thrissur district, overnight. 

He is waiting for the day when the 582-km stretch of the National Highway-66 that connects Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod will have six lanes and is free of red lights. “Much of NH-66 was just a two-lane road, with several intersections. With vehicles parked on either side and passenger buses stopping to allow commuters to board and alight, a road trip to Kasaragod from Thiruvananthapuram took double the time it should,” he says.

NH-66 that runs between Panvel in Maharashtra and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, across five States, is significant because it runs down the west coast.

Once complete, it will augment port-led development, through better synergy with road transport. Within Kerala, NH-66 runs through nine of the 14 districts, and is almost a nerve-centre, running north to south through the State. 

For a State with over 1.5 crore vehicles in 2023 as per Kerala’s Motor Vehicles department, Kerala’s national highways have been very narrow, and their redevelopment slow. The highways in Kerala have several challenges. Due to high population density, they are 45 metres wide, unlike the rest of India that has a 60-metre width. There is also ribbon development, with homes, commercial establishments and offices along the highway.  

The highway widening that was to be complete in Kerala by March 2025 will now only be done by December 2025, but those impacted by its development are sceptical. “It’s been a long wait for the people for wider national highways in Kerala,” says N. Prasad, from Thrissur, who surrendered part of his land for highway widening. He thinks the pace of work should be doubled to meet the December 2025 deadline. 

The original proposal in 2016 said work along the brownfield highway would be complete by 2020. But contracts were only awarded in January 2022 and work began only in March the same year. During the initial planning stages, the State government agreed to bear 25% of the land-acquisition cost, which worked out to ₹5,580 crore.

An estimated 12 toll booths are expected to be set up once the Thiruvananthapuram-Kasaragod NH 66 corridor is six-laned.

An estimated 12 toll booths are expected to be set up once the Thiruvananthapuram-Kasaragod NH 66 corridor is six-laned. | Photo Credit: H VIBHU

With the State recording over 4,000 road accident deaths every year, a bulk of them on highways, it’s been a long-standing demand by commuters and planners that the highways be widened to six lanes. This would also ensure faster travel and lower accidents and pollution due to green-house gases. The design speed on NH 66 would be 80 to 100 kmph.  

Around 25,000 trees would be cut down to widen the largely two-lane NH-66 corridor in Kerala. Unlike most other highways where it is up to local bodies to install streetlights, the National Highways Authority of India will install lights at junctions and accident-prone areas here. Solar-powered blinkers too will be set up, says an NHAI official. 

Work delays 

The work has been held up, say contractors, because of the sparse availability of raw materials, such as mud, sand, and aggregate, within the State. These are being sourced from other States, including Tamil Nadu. 

“The delay in processing applications at village offices, taluk offices, and the Mining and Geology department has also affected the progress of the highway-widening work. This is apart from the time restriction on lorries carrying raw materials [usually movement is restricted to the night], all of which demand that the State government intervene proactively,” says an official who works with a contracting firm.

“Other problems include shifting power and water pipeline cables. The Kerala State Electricity Board keeps revising its demand list,” he says, explaining that for instance, the number of transformers to be relocated have grown. The Kerala Water Authority does not always have the exact location of its pipelines. This necessitates manual excavation, a time-consuming process, which also leads to cost overruns.”   

Then there are the regional issues, with people in densely populated areas demanding a greater number of underpasses for safe passage of pedestrians and motorists in the neighbourhood. At Cheranallore in Ernakulam, residents have taken to the path of agitation demanding wider service roads to enable two-lane traffic and a reduction in the height of drains running on both sides of the highway, which they fear will cause waterlogging. While the highway will be dry, the water may gush into people’s houses, they fear. 

Manoj Chakkeri, secretary of Kottaparambu Residents’ Association, Cheranallore, points to the unusual height of the drains and says this will no doubt cause flooding in nearby houses. “This is a variation from the plan approved by the NHAI and speaks of inadequate supervision. To make matters worse, the NHAI is reluctant to share the detailed project report (DPR) and environment impact assessment (EIA) report of this stretch of the NH with us,” he says.

Officials of the NHAI say that 30% of the NH widening work is over on the 22-km Edapally-Muthakunnam stretch and pending work can be completed by April 2025. “It’s all being done in compliance with the approved plan. Service roads that allow for the design speed of 40 kmph are being built,” they say. 

That, however, buttresses the fear of the work overshooting the revised deadline of December 2025. Only about 50% of work has been done along the 19 reaches for the 582-km NH corridor. A reach is a stretch under a different contractor. A reach has a deadline of 30 months, but in Kerala it is given 36. 

Elevated highway delays  

Work on the elevated 13-km Aroor-Thuravur part of the highway began last year and about 15% of it has been completed so far. Contractors say this is due for completion only by 2026. 

The worst part is that a similar elevated highway mooted in the congested 16-km Edapally-Aroor NH bypass that passes through Kochi city is still uncertain as its DPR has not been finalised. This is because development of the stretch, which is used by about a lakh passenger car units (PCUs) daily, has not been included in the Centre’s Bharatamala project (that aims to improve economic corridors and expressways, among others), say NHAI officials.

“But it has been included in the NH Original (NHO) plan along with Kochi’s port-connectivity project and the bypass corridors proposed at Muvattupuzha and Kothamangalam. It is imperative that funds are earmarked for the long-overdue elevated highway,” they say.  

Office-bearers of the Ernakulam District Residents Associations’ Apex Council (EDRAAC), NGOs, and others have been citing how the inordinate delay in finalising plans for the Edapally-Aroor elevated highway will result in Kochi’s NH bypass becoming a choking point on NH-66, even if rest of the NH 66 is widened. 

As per the tentative plan, the elevated highway will run parallel to the three flyovers on the NH 66 bypass, while a decision ought to be taken on how it will integrate with a trumpet intersection that has been planned at Nettoor, on the Kundannur-Aroor stretch, says an NHAI official.  

Minister for Public Works P.A. Mohamed Riyas says the State government has been working with the NHAI to review the progress of construction periodically so that the highway work is completed as per schedule. “Work is under way for the Aroor-Thuravur elevated highway, while efforts are under way to realise a similarly elevated corridor on the Edapally-Aroor NH 66 bypass through Kochi,” he says. 

K. Biju, PWD Secretary, says NH-development works in Malabar have attained considerable progress and are set for completion in 2024 itself, if not by early 2025. “The work in other parts of the State can be completed by December 2025 except on the 29-km Edapally-Thuravur stretch, where a pair of elevated highway segments are expected.”

He says the government will soon decide whether to waive royalty and GST as sought by the Centre. This will allow the NHAI to go ahead with work on the long-overdue 44-km Kundannur-Angamaly bypass. This corridor is critical to decongest the Edapally-Aroor NH 66 bypass as well as the Edapally-Angamaly NH 544 corridor which witness high-volume traffic. 

On the expanded national highway, a 0.5-metre-wide concrete ‘jersey barrier’ will be set up in place of a wider median so that the vehicle pathway is not compromised. “Bus bays will be readied wherever land is available or where the local body concerned has handed over additional land for them. There will be 12 toll booths along the length of the highway. The toll for structures like elevated highways and flyovers will be 10 times more than the rest of the highway,” an NHAI official adds.  

Once widened, the brownfield NH-66 corridor and the greenfield Kochi-Theni NH-85 corridor, which has been proposed, will give a fillip to logistics movement from Vizhinjam, Kochi, and other ports. 

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