Crawling in the slow lane
One set of statistics are well stacked up in favour of Transport Minister Kamal Nath. In three years between 2007-2009, the government acquired 12,766 hectares and awarded 5,396 kilometres of road construction at a cost of Rs. 26,671 crores. In the nine months of UPA-II, Nath has acquired 29,766 hectares and awarded 4,447 kilometres of road construction at a cost of Rs. 45,614 crore. But there is another and an unpleasant side to the story.
Against the target of constructing 20 kilometres of roads each day, the ministry has built a mere 5.5 kilometres each day during the first year of UPA-II. For the next fiscal, the Planning Commission has fixed the ministry’s target to construct 2,500 kilometres of highways at the rate of just 6.8 kilometres of road construction each day. Last year’s World Bank report on India’s roads construction industry brings out other and disquieting facts.
Seventy per cent of construction contracts in India exceed time limits by more than a quarter, while 40 per cent of contracts experience cost overruns of 25-50 per cent, says the report. It further points out that, if the current rate of road building is maintained, India’s construction industry will experience a shortfall of 64 per cent in skilled manpower.
India has 110,000 highway engineers against China’s 5, 00,000. Since 2001, the National Institute of Training Highway Engineers (NITHE) has trained 18,000 engineers. But, at this rate, is the ministry getting much closer to achieving the ambitious targets it has set for itself? “We may not be where we want to be, but we are getting there very fast,” says the Minister of State for Transport RPN Singh. Nath’s approach has been “hands on” and this has resulted in various positives. For one, there is a renewed investor interest in India’s roads sector.
Of the estimated $10 billion of foreign investments that India needs over the next three years, just two companies have reportedly agreed to finance $ 2.5 billion! Nath has also taken a serious shot at bringing about structural changes: Launching the national permit system, introducing the National Road Safety Bill in Parliament, besides taking measures to bring amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act. But one problematic area that he has been unable to effectively tackle concerns controversies relating to faulty Detailed Project Reports (DPRs).
Close to a dozen projects are held up on account of faulty DPRs. Construction work in Nath’s own constituency of Chhindwara on NH-7 has been at a standstill because of the existence of the Pench tiger reserve along the route. This had provoked the Transport Minister into shooting off a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, alleging that Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh was sitting over environmental clearances.