Ludhiana-Talwandi Bhai four-laning: Stuck in the middle

  • Anshu Seth, Hindustan Times, Ludhiana
  • Updated: Dec 23, 2014 14:19 IST

The project of four-laning the National Highway-95 section from Ludhiana to Talwandi Bhai in Ferozepur commenced on March 26, 2012, and it was scheduled for completion on September 21 this year. Even as the deadline swooshed by, the project was at a standstill since October 2013.

As a result, the 78km stretch — from 92 km to 170 km — has remained accident-prone. The new deadline is March, and the firm claims to have restarted work last month.

NH-95, entirely within Punjab, connects Kharar near Chandigarh with Ferozepur, and runs for a length of 225km. The estimated cost of the 78km four-laning was Rs 479 crore, which is likely to escalate now. Being a BOT (build, operate, transfer) project, all rights of the stretch have been shifted from the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to a private firm or concessionaire, Essel Ludhiana Talwandi Toll Road Private Limited, and in return the firm has to provide every facility to the road’s users till the end of the concession period, which is 29 years from the appointed date, March 26, 2012.

As per the executive summary report of September this year on the project, the target date for the first milestone (start of construction) was September 21, 2012; this was achieved. The second milestone (start of construction of bridges) of March 25, 2013, was also hit. However, the third milestone (start of all project facilities) of September 26, 2013, was not met.

Meanwhile, the NHAI has hired another firm to maintain the stretch in a bid keep it safe.

Safety a victim

Moga Bar Council president Ramesh Grover filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Punjab and Haryana high court in October this year, holding the NHAI responsible for escalation in road accidents. The six months’ data presented in the court by the advocate specifies 88 accidents that caused 50 deaths on the highway that passes through Moga district.

“The NHAI should have taken stern action against the company and given the contract to some other firm as they have caused loss of life and property,” said Grover.

The NHAI, in its reply to the high court, filed an affidavit stating that the concessionaire completed about half the work by October 2013, but then abruptly stopped it and even stopped attending to the maintenance and safety of the highway; so much so that the concessionaire took away machinery, thus violating the agreement. The NHAI issued a notice for default.

The authority has levied damages amounting to `9.58 crore on the firm.

The NHAI also wrote to the deputy commissioners of Ludhiana, Moga and Ferozepur that the concessionaire is guilty of breach of agreement and the Punjab government has the right to book the firm and its board of directors in case any untoward incident on the NH-95 stretch.

Repeated reminders, excess Rs 375 crore

Despite having written to the concessionaire followed by several meetings — on December 24, 2013; and on April 17 and 25, May 27, July 25 and the latest on October 21 — all the NHAI has got are assurances. The authority wrote to the chairman of the Essel group on June 2014 apprising him of the status of the project work and lack of commitment of the field officers who are directly responsible for the project. This letter (copy with HT) highlighted that the concessionaire has withdrawn Rs 653 crore from the escrow account for the project whereas the physical work done is worth Rs 278 crore.

This means excess withdrawal of Rs 375 crore.

Keeping in view the nonchalance of the concessionaire, the NHAI invited tenders for safety and maintenance works worth Rs 3.59 crore on the project, and awarded the work to `Gawar Construction Limited on November 14.

When HT contacted Dharmender Singh, general manager of the Essel group, he claimed that the work had resumed: “We will complete 75% of the work by June 2015,” Singh said.

Commuters harried

Incomplete flyovers have had the worst impact on traffic in towns and cities including Mullanpur, Jagraon, Moga as the dug-up roads result in jams and mishaps.

“The boulders, iron rods and pits have caused various accidents. Also, the diversion signs are not visible,” said Shamsher Singh, a motor mechanic in Mullanpur. Jatin Kumar, a resident of Moga, remarked, “It is a sorry state of affairs and particularly unsafe at night. The road suddenly disappears!”

Kamaljit Soi, an international road safety expert, termed the road a “killer stretch”. “When the project commenced, people had heaved a sigh of relief thinking that the four-laning will make it safer; but it has become worse due to the lackadaisical approach of the construction company. More than 200 people die every year due on this stretch,” he added.

He also pointed towards the scattered construction material.

“There are more than 100 link roads connecting to this road which do not have restriction in terms of access. Worse, there are no markings, no warning signs, no spring posts, no side railing or slip roads. It won’t be wrong to compare travelling on this road with that in Afghanistan where death is written all over the road. The ‘credit’ must go to the construction company as well as the NHAI and the government of Punjab.”

DC sounds out cops

Ludhiana deputy commissioner Rajat Agarwal said he had sent the NHAI’s letter to the Jagraon senior superintendent of police (SSP) with a message that in case of road accidents the FIR should be registered against the concessionaire.

“Also, I convened a meeting with the NHAI and the company officials, directing them to ensure safety measures,” the DC told HT.

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