Delayed by over three years, the six-laning of the Panipat-Jalandhar section of National Highway (NH) 1, among the oldest highways in the country passing through Haryana and Punjab, has been a constant source of harassment for the commuters.
As if the excavation, under-construction flyovers and numerous diversions on the 291-kilometre section are not enough to inconvenience commuters, there is also a hefty toll to be paid for the unfinished road. Travelling here is a nightmare, especially after dark, and accidents are routine.
In 2013, a bus fell off the stretch in a river near in Sirhind, killing 25 people, as there were no fences on the bridge.
Despite the project being delayed by over three years, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) permitted the concessionaire to collect the toll to recover his construction cost from May 2009. The first deadline for completion of the project was November 2011.
Soma-Isolux NH One Tollway Private Limited, a consortium of Spanish company Isolux Corsan and its Indian partner Soma Enterprises Limited, was awarded the contract (or, in technical terms, concession) and the agreement was signed on May 9, 2008. That said the project was to be executed on the design-build-finance-operate (DBFO) basis with a concession period was for 15 years.
The 30-month construction period from May 11, 2009, meant completion by November 2011. However, the concessionaire failed to meet even the extended deadline of March 31, 2013. Then a Supreme Court bench of justices Gyan Sudha Misra and Pinaki Chandra Ghose, on April 17 this year, set a new deadline of March 31, 2015, for the 29% project that remains to be built.
The pace relatively picked up after that, but the new deadline is now merely three months away and there is no sign of early completion.
The cost has also escalated. Initially, the estimated cost as of March 30, 2009, was Rs 2,747.5 crore. However, as per the estimates of September this year, the cost has gone up to Rs 4,518 crore.
Not enough pace
Indeed, a flyover at Umri in Kurukshetra and another at Taraori in Karnal were opened in the past fortnight. At least two similar structures in both districts are expected to be opened soon. And information gathered from different places in Haryana and Punjab revealed that the concessionaire had resumed work at almost all places.
A survey revealed that carpeting of the road near Karnal’s new grain market has started, whereas earthwork at Namastay Chowk in Karnal and Kalka Chowk in Ambala has also begun. A part of the Jhandli flyover in Ambala is nearing completion. Similarly, work at the Shahbad flyover has been started.
At several places, though, including Nilokheri in Karnal and Pipli Chowk in Kurukshetra, there remains delay in the construction of flyovers and underpasses. From the toll-collection plaza on the Ludhiana road right to the Shambu barrier toll plaza, the 20km stretch is incomplete. Most of the bridges at busy places like Khanna, Sirhind and Ludhiana bypass are also incomplete.
Yet, NHAI project director Vipin Sharma told HT that, after the issue of relocation of toll plazas was settled by the SC, “the work is in full swing”. He said that of the 180 structures to be built on the section, 100 were complete. “Work on rest is at an advanced stage. As the region experienced rainfall recently, work may get delayed by a few days but we are fully prepared to meet the deadline,” he claimed.
Lots to blame
Soma representatives blame gaps in toll plazas locations and poor availability of construction material due to the ban on mining as reasons for delay. Delays in the land acquisition process, shifting of utilities and removal of encroachments were also cited as reasons for the concessionaire not being able to achieve the deadline.
“Now there are no such issues and the work is going on smoothly. Following the SC’s directions, a toll plaza at Nilokheri was shifted to Bastara near Panipat, while another at Shambhu in Punjab is expected to be relocated to Ambala in Haryana. An official notification by the central government is awaited,” said an official of Soma.
Taking a toll
The delay has hit the lives of motorists. “Owing to the incomplete construction work, driving at night on NH-1 is a risky affair. But, as the SC has mandated a deadline now, motorists hope for good days ahead,” said Chandigarh-based road safety activist Harman Sidhu, who runs the NGO ArriveSafe.
Rajat Kapoor, a resident of Panipat, said the authorities should impose heavy penalties in case of further delay. “Several fatal accidents have taken place due to poor construction. Authorities should install traffic signboards and lights near the construction sites,” said Kapoor, a frequent traveler to Ludhiana.
The toll fee has increased by almost 30% in the past five years. “At Ludhiana, the concessionaire charges Rs 115 for a car driven, say, from Jalandhar to Shambhu, but that 20km stretch is not complete and requires zigzag driving skills! How is that justified?” remarked Dr Rajesh Sharma, a physician from Patiala who frequently uses the stretch.
Kapurthala-based businessman Rachpal Singh, a daily commuter on the highway, added, “It pinches when you pay such high toll for driving on this road. Taxes are imposed for better and smooth riding, but it’s the opposite for NH-1. In fact, it’s dangerous at many places. The toll should be suspended till the completion of the project. But who would listen to commuters?”
National Highway 1 — popularly called the Grand Trunk Road — passes through Punjab and Haryana as it connects Delhi with Attari (Amritsar) on the border with Pakistan. The bus to Lahore in Pakistan also uses it, and the highway is usually laden with heavy traffic. The 291km stretch to be six-laned passes through four Haryana districts — Panipat, Karnal, Kurukshetra and Ambala — and five Punjab districts that include Patiala, Fatehgarh Sahib, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Kapurthala. Along it are the industrial areas of Mandi Gobindgarh and Phagwara, and the stretch is also connected or intersected by NH-65 (Ambala-Hisar), NH-22 (Ambala-Chandigarh-Shimla), NH-64 (Rajpura-Bathinda) and NH-95 (Ludhiana-Ferozepur).
The NHAI, under Phase 5 of its National Highway Development Programme (NHDP), decided to convert the four-lane NH-1 into six-lane.
Of the project’s 291km, Haryana has 116, and Punjab, 175.
Soma-Isolux NH One Tollway Pvt Ltd, consortium of Spanish company Isolux Corsan and its Indian partner Soma Enterprises Ltd, got contract (concession) for the 291km Panipat-Jalandhar section in 2008; total length of highway is 456 km.
It is to be executed as tolled project on design-build-finance-operate (DBFO) basis. Concession (toll-collection) period is 15 years, and the construction period was 30 months from May 2009 to November 2011.
It stands delayed by over three years as concessionaire failed to meet extended deadline of March 31, 2013 too; but NHAI permitted concessionaire to collect toll to recover construction cost from May 2009.
Punjab and Haryana high court on May 27, 2013, directed NHAI to take over highway; directions for this were issued by NHAI three days later.
Concessionaire got relief from Supreme Court on April 17, 2014, and the court ordered that construction of remaining 29% project be completed by March 31, 2015.
The cost of the project has escalated primarily due to delays. The estimated cost as of March 30, 2009, was Rs 2,747.5 crore. As per the estimates of September this year, it is now Rs 4,518 crore.