Taking the highway to success

  • Moushumi Das Gupta, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 28, 2014 12:45 IST

Not much has changed in the way the Taj Mahal continues to mesmerise visitors from around the world. In 2012, what did change was its relative distance from Delhi. The Rs 13,300-crore Yamuna Expressway - a 165-km high-speed access-controlled link - reduced travel time between the Capital and the 15th-century city of Agra from about five hours to just two, and is also silently transforming the economy of the region.

Expressways like this have the potential to take India's growth trajectory to the next level. But only a handful, including the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, were added to India's road network in the past decade, and just a few more are in the making.

India's highway development programme got its first big push in 1998, under the leadership of then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who launched the National Highways Development Project (NHDP), one of the largest government initiatives to date to expand and upgrade the capacity of the country's shambolic highway network.

Since its launch, about 48,476 km of highways, including the 5,846 km Golden Quadrilateral that connects the four major metros, have come up through a mix of government and private-sector funding.

This massive augmentation resulted in India's highway network more than doubling, from a mere 34,000 km in 1995 to approximately 80,000 km today. But 16 years after NHDP was launched, the programme seems to be floundering and in need of an overhaul if it is to keep pace with growing traffic volumes.

The government's opaque policies on land acquisition and forest and environmental clearances, coupled with the economic slowdown and delayed decision-making, have slowed highway development since 2008.

Private developers, who played a crucial role in the success of the NHDP until about a decade ago, are now wary of participating. Highway expansion has become, for the most part, a patchy and piecemeal endeavour.

Currently, projects worth Rs 1.28 lakh crore are languishing for want of funds or clearances. In the last three years, 28 projects have been terminated either because concessionaires developed cold feet or the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) failed to get land and clearances.

Infrastructure experts agree that it is time for India to launch the second edition of the NHDP. "The time has come for long-term network planning that caters to the growing traffic needs of the next 15 to 20 years," says Deepak Dasgupta, former NHAI chairman, during whose tenure NHDP was launched.

Highway development so far has been largely limited to incremental increases in road-widening - from two to four or six lanes, Dasgupta adds. "This has failed to cater to present-day demands. Incremental increases in road width should be replaced with access-controlled expressways in areas where there is a high volume of traffic."

Given the constraints in government finances, experts say a large chunk of the funding needed would have to come from the private sector.
But for that, the government will have to sort out the issues making this sector wary. "The government needs to take responsibility. It can't wash its hands of a project after awarding it to a private developer. You cannot ignore tell-tale signs of distress and then pass all the risk to the private sector," says Parvesh Minocha, group managing director at Feedback Infra, an infrastructure consultancy firm.

The government needs to frame a clear policy to encourage investment in infrastructure-building. "There is also an urgent need to restructure the NHAI. NHDP succeeded because the NHAI was empowered to take all decision related to project implementation," says Dasgupta. "The government's role ended with approving the NHDP. NHAI's autonomy has since been severely compromised. Today there are too many agencies making decisions and the responsibility has become diffused, derailing the highway programme."

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