OPINION

Targets fallen by the wayside

Ravi Shankar Prasad

How crucial national highways projects stand derailed.

Now that the United Progressive Alliance government is nearing the end of its term, it can be conclusively stated that the National Highway Development Programme (NHDP) that had been started by the National Democratic Alliance government to improve a very crucial component of infrastructure development has been derailed by the UPA government. There have been chronic delays, ad-hocism, lack of monitoring and the play of extraneous forces in decision-making. The ambitious NHDP has failed miserably on several counts. This presents a copy book case of non-performance by the UPA, in stark contrast to the exceedingly good work done by the previous NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Even the Planning Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) have adversely commented on the execution of the projects under the UPA.

The NDA government had conceived, planned and started the execution of the three-phase NHDP. Phase I comprised the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) running to a length of 5,846 km and linking Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. This was approved in December 2000 at an estimated cost of Rs. 30,000 crore (at 1999 prices). Phase II was approved in December 2003 at an estimated cost of Rs. 34,339 crore (at 2002 prices): this comprised mostly the North-South (Srinagar-Kanyakumari) and East-West (Silchar-Porbandar) corridors. The total length of these corridors was to be 7,300 km, which subsequently became 7,498 km.

Soon after the decision was taken, the NDA government started executing the GQ project in right earnest. Land was acquired quickly, contracts were awarded and work proceeded at great speed. As on March 31, 2003, against the total length of 5,846 km, four-laning was completed along 1,327 km and work was under implementation on 4,383 km. As on March 31, 2004, a length of 2,612 km stood completed and a length of 3,234 km remained under implementation (Source: Annual Report, National Highways Authority of India). In fact, the Annual Report of the Department of Road Transport and Highways for 2007-08 (under the UPA government) itself acknowledges on page 14 that after approval in December 2000 most of the works were awarded in 2002 (when the NDA was in power). As a consequence, though the NDA left office in May 2004, as on November 30, 2004 four-laning work had been completed only to a length of 4,203 km as against the targeted 5,846 km. This fact is confirmed by the Annual Report of the Department of Road Transport and Highways for 2004-05 (Page 5).

The project success rate during the NDA government’s period was 71 per cent in 2002-03 against the target. Thanks to the good groundwork that had been done earlier, in 2004-05 the success rate rose to 81 per cent of the target. Thereafter the decline started. T.R. Baalu, Union Minister of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways, whose Ministry is the nodal Ministry for the national highways projects, said in a public statement on August 6, 2004 that the GQ stood rescheduled to be completed in 2005.

As against the total planned length of 5,846 km for the GQ, till March 2008 (vide Annual Report 2007-08) only 5,650 km was completed and the remaining part was still in progress. More than 350 km of the GQ is yet to be completed. The point is that in spite of a sound beginning made, with nearly all the contracts being awarded during the NDA government’s period itself, the GQ project is not complete. This is in spite of the Minister’s claim that it would be completed by December 2005.

The total target length of the North South-East West Corridor (NS-EW) is 7,498 km, of which 981 km was also included in NHDP Phase I. During the NDA government’s time, work on a length of about 1,000 km was executed, and as on March 31, 2004 four-laning was completed along a length of 588 km, while the remaining 475 km was under implementation (NHAI Annual Report). Mr. Baalu also stated publicly that the remaining contracts for these corridors would be finalised before March 2005 and that the entire project would be completed by December 2007. This was to be done under NHDP II.

However, progress on this front has been deplorably slow. In April 2008 the Planning Commission undertook a progress review and found that NHDP II across 6,647 km had fared even worse. While contracts for a length of 811 km were to be awarded in 2007-08, it was done for just 43 km: a dismal 5 per cent. Against the target of four-laning 2,013 km, with just 1,020 km completed there was 51 per cent success.

On NHDP I the review found just 49 per cent achievement in terms of four-laning targets for 2008. The Planning Commission noted that the achievement rate of four-laning came down from 81 per cent in 2004-05 to 49 per cent in 2006-07, bringing down the progress rate during the entire Tenth Plan period. In fact, in an internal report reviewing projects meant for completion by October 2008, the NHAI itself found that not a single one among the 47 projects in Phase II of the NS-EW corridor could be completed.

Under NHDP III, a 12,109-km project was planned to connect places of social and economic significance. Against a target of awarding concessions for a length of 3,278 km, there has been a meagre 9 per cent achievement with contracts awarded for just 278 km.

The story of NHDP IV is equally unsatisfactory. The NHAI had planned to award 61 projects by December 2008 under the Build-Operate-Transfer (with toll) model to widen 6,343 km of highways at a project-estimated cost of Rs. 67,000 crore. Of these, only three projects have recently been awarded. This constitutes callous indifference.

The CAG has been critical of the situation in a recent report; it found that a majority of the 17 road works awarded under the public-private partnership mode in NHDP Phase I were delayed. Only five of them were completed on time. The government stands to lose about Rs. 400 crore on the projects because of irregularities on the part of the NHAI.

Ministerial interference

The manner in which Mr. Baalu has been functioning over the last few years would show that he has his own whims and fancies. This has demoralised the officers. Decisions are not being taken. In the last three years the NHAI has seen five Chairmen. Even the Delhi High Court adversely commented on the interference in the working of the NHAI. The members of its board have been changed frequently. The Minister fancies pliant officers and is keen to encourage and at times force decisions that are favourable. There is virtual paralysis in the functioning of the NHAI. There is practically no effective monitoring, and decision-making is becoming a casualty. This explains the slowdown that has been explained earlier.

Because of all the delay, cost escalation has become a major cause of worry. NHDP I and NHDP II have seen an increase in estimated cost by 26 per cent. A substantial part of the funding for these projects comes from the cess on petrol that is collected specially from consumers. Any delay, therefore, hits the consumer hard.

The most crucial aspect is a gross failure with respect to one of the most important elements of infrastructure that has long-term implications for the economy, development and employment. The gains of the NDA government have in effect been undone by the UPA government. Now that the after-effects of the global recession are being felt in India, the slowdown in the highways programme is going to hit the economy hard.

(Ravi Shankar Prasad is a Member of Parliament. The former Union Minister is now national spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party.)

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