Started in 2008, the widening of the 219-kilometre Zirakpur-Bathinda stretch of National Highway-64 has added a lot of papers to files but not moved an inch on the ground.
In the initial plans, the wider road was to be ready by the end of 2010. It would have been the first cemented concrete expressway of Punjab on the lines of the Delhi-Jaipur corridor; but some plans never materialise.
Call it the high sand-gravel price or the fear of the sand mafia, the first contractor abandoned the work without even initiating it, while no one has bid since for this project that was worth Rs 2,000 crore in 2012. Now the cost has escalated 40%, to Rs 2,800 crore, with a 166-km expressway, bypasses for every joining city, and new bridges and over-bridges to be added to the plan.
In 2012, the work was awarded to private company Rohan and Rajdeep that, thanks to the soaring sand-gravel cost, thought it better to surrender the surety than to go ahead with the task. So far, in the name of expansion, only two things have been done—the cutting of nearly 1-lakh trees and the acquiring of 281-hectare farmland, which is the size of the West European principality of Monaco.
When the major bottlenecks are cleared, Punjab has failed to get a contractor to build the road. After the initial failure, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) floated tenders through the Punjab government for project worth Rs 580 crore for widening the 58-kilometre stretch from Zirakpur to Patiala, but twice found no bidder. The latest deadline for applying was November 15.
Delay costing lives
Every year of delay is costing lives. This deadly single road last year has killed 500 people, and injured more than a thousand, while the number of fatalities this year is 380 till November.
On this road that goes into the heartland of the current rulers of Punjab from the turf of the previous chief minister, many journeys end before the destination. The entire 259-kilometre NH-64 that runs from Chandigarh to Dabwali has the maximum rate of fatal accidents (two a day) in the state. They don’t call it the nightmare of the drivers for nothing.
90 dark spots
Parkash Singh Badal’s Bathinda to Captain Amarinder Singh’s Patiala, the road is narrow and full of dark spots (where accidents are common). The NHAI and the state public works department (PWD) have listed no less than 90. As the journey progresses, the pressure increases, as traffic from Mansa, Barnala, Sangrur, Patiala, Rajpura, Banur, Fatehgarh Sahib, and states highways joins in on way to Chandigarh.
The accident cases, minimum in Mansa and Barnala, mount in Sangrur; and in Patiala, the road turns bloody. “I have been driving on this road for the past 30 years. It is today the most dangerous. The rashest drivers are of private luxury buses; it seems they are always coming to crush you. At Badaruka, Hari Garh, Danula, Rampura Phul, and Rajpura, there’s a new accident every day. I have seen more mishaps in the past three years than in the rest of life,” said taxi driver Ravinder Singh.
Patiala’s Shivraj Sharma of Patiala blames it on the new-found affluence of Malwa. “In the past five years, the fortunes of this region have turned so much because of the realty boom that it now has three times more vehicles. The roads that carried only a few vehicles now are packed with SUVs. The worst hours to be on the highway are 7am to 10am and 4pm to 7pm”. “For the past eight years, people are hearing that the road will be widened, but no one knows when,” said commuter Rawel Singh.
The authorities know the only solution. “It is the immediate converting of the road to four lanes, the process of which the state government has started already. Twice, we have failed to find a bidder but we now have approached the central government to fund this project in the EPC (engineer, procure, and construct) mode. The Centre has agreed in principle, and now the plan is to split the tender to get more bidders on the job and finish it fast,” said Punjab PWD minister Janmeja Singh Sekhon.
2008: Plan made, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) approvesit; Punjab deputy chief ministerannounces that the road will bewidened by the end of 2010.
2009: Detailed project reportdeveloped, public works department floats tenders for hiring consultants for environmental clearance.
2010: All mandatory clearances secured, Punjab floats tender forconstruction on BOT (built, operate, transfer) basis.
2011: Tender is awarded to private company Rohan and Rajdeep that abandons work because of thesoaring prices of sand and gravel.
2012: Nearly 1 lakh trees are cut for widening the road; 90% of landacquisition is complete; project redesigned as expressway.
2013: Tenders floated again, nobidder is found.
2014: The deputy chief minister meets the Union surface transport minister to seek central finance to the project; Centre is asked torefloat tenders.
November 2014: The government finds no bidder yet again.
December 2014: Punjab writes to the Centre to request it to undertake the project in the EPC (engineer, procure, construct) mode.
Major bridge 1
Minor bridges 29
23 on main carriageway and
6 on the service road
Pedestrian/cattle underpasses 20
Service roads 105 km
(both sides) at 33 locations
Bus bays 60
Truck bays 2
Toll plazas 3