Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Assam on 1 August to assess the flood situation and his announcement of a special package of Rs 2,350 crore for the Northeast has raised hopes for a better future for several reasons.
First, the establishment of the National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation of India in July 2014 — a government of India company with a mandate to extend and improve the national highway network in the North-east and the country’s other border areas — meets the long-felt needs of the agency that is dedicated to development of road transport and infrastructure in the region.
Second, Modi’s direction to develop a long-term strategy to address the recurring floods by implementing projects in inter-related areas of construction of flood-moderation structures, soil and water management and sustainable agriculture and plantation activities, will provide the necessary impetus to the states concerned and Central organisations like the Brahmaputra Board and the National Highway and infrastructure Development Corporation of India to intensify their activities with an appropriate focus.
The disquieting position on the ground, however, is that there has been a slowdown in highway development, both in the national and state highway and other roads, not caused by the current floods alone even when Modi’s flood package provided Rs 1,000 crore for repair of damaged infrastructure in Assam, including the Rs 2,000 crore already released to the state and the 504 km of national highway in Assam that has been badly affected by floods this year.
In this background, if one looks at the economic survey of the government of India from 2012-2013 till 2016-17, the central commitment to expand and deepen development of roadways in the North-east is very emphatic as it allotted sufficient funds under the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme for the North-east region and committed about Rs 40,000 crore for two and four-laning of national highway and other categories of roads for phased implementation, including strategic ones in Arunachal Pradesh.
The project status, as of 15 July 2017, of the National highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation indicate that it has 132 ongoing projects in the region, involving an investment of over Rs 67,000 crore for civil works only without taking into account the costs of land acquisition. The actual investment would, however, depend on the physical progress.
Apparently, neither funding nor the capacity to prepare the project is the problem. In 2014-15 the Centre allotted Rs 3, 000 crore for improvement of the national highway system in the North-east and under the SARDP’s Phase1, 6,500 km of improvement works, like two and fourlaning and extension of road network, were due for completion by 2016.
However, as against this target, the achievement is only 1,000 km of improved work so far which has a cascading effect on current programme as the backlog has to be cleared first. Earlier in 2013-14 also against a target of 3,838 km of road for improvement, only 1,152 km were completed under the SARDP. So it appears that there has been a recurring shortfall in physical performance and therefore utilisation of funds, which is the crux of the problem.
Now the situation on the ground is grim. In Manipur, its network of 1,317 km is in bad shape and real repairs could be taken up, especially in the Hills, only after the monsoon. In Assam, several portions of the NH 37, the state’s lifeline such as the Nowgong-Dibrugarh stretch and, in particular, the Kaliabor to Dolabari segment and Gohpur to Holangi portion of the NH 52A need extensive repairs. This means more money has been spent repeatedly without any real improvement in the highway system.
A major cause is the practice of allotment of contracts and their terms and conditions, which often enable the contractors — big players at times — to get away with poor performance. It must be seen that the contractor system is built into all National Highway projects because, as observed in the Economic Survey 2014-15, the National Highway Authority of India leverages the funds received from the government to borrow additional funds from the debt market through sale of its tax-free bonds and has adopted “Build, Operate and Transfer” under what is known as public private partnership. Across the country and mainly due to the economic slowdown, the survey observed the Bot road projects have been hit by reduced revenue realisation, which resulted in default “in debt accounts of the concessionaires” in the PPP projects.
While this is a problem for the road sector as a whole, in the region it seems the contractors, and even foreign firms, take the contract and then fail to meet the schedule, causing not only delay but also cost escalation. For instance, the Jorhat-Jhanji fourlaning work, a part of the crucial Nowgong-Dibrugarh stretch of NH 37, was allotted by the NHIDCI to a Spanish firm, Corsan Corvium in November 2014.
It began work in January 2015. It was also working on the Jhanji-Demow stretch. But the progress was not even one per cent when it should have completed more than 50 per cent by November 2017. Similarly, the progress of the four-laning work on the DemowMoran stretch by Gannon and Dunkerly, has been negligible and in the Moran-Bogibeel section, it is just 1.34 per cent. And this is the same story in four other vital segments of the national highway in Assam, as highlighted in the media. Quite naturally this has caused resentment forcing the NHIDCL in July to terminate the contract with the Spanish firm and to slap notices on four other firms involved in the fourlaning and repair projects.
One important lesson for the North-east from this experience is that private sector participation in road development in the region is no panacea for its ills. And second, the development of physical infrastructure like roads is better not done in isolation because geology, geo-morphology, terrain, forests and environment, seismicity and agricultural practices have to be factored into road development strategy.
A holistic approach is needed. It is heartening to note that the Union Minister for roadways Nitin Gadkari has announced the decision to start dredging the entire stretch of the Brahmaputra from Sadiya to Dhubri, September onwards to maintain a draft high enough to moderate floods of the mighty river and provide critical protection to the roadways. This may be supported by creating a regional road research and development system capable of providing the North-east location-specific scientific solutions for the construction of roads and bridges.
The recent unhappy experience may also point to the need for a dedicated road building organisation for the North-east, possibly structured on the Border Roads Organisation model based in the region. It is largely manned by local youth to reduce dependence on private contractors even for maintaining the “lifelines” of the region. It is thus time for out-of-the-box thinking.
(The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India)