Spotlight on Setu Bharatam: Facilitating seamless travel on national highways

Facilitating seamless travel on national highways

Launched in March 2016, the Setu Bharatam programme aims to make all national highways free of railway level crossings by 2019. It involves the construction of 208 road overbridges (RoBs) and road underbridges (RuBs) across 19 states at a cost of Rs 208 billion. In addition, about 1,500 old bridges will be replaced or improved by widening in a phased manner at a cost of about Rs 300 billion.

The need for the Setu Bharatam programme arose from the high risk posed by level crossings for Indian Railways, resulting in loss of life and property, limiting the line capacity of tracks, and increasing the operations and maintenance cost. Further, around 5 per cent of the trains are delayed on account of the presence of level crossings. Earlier, in 2012, the High-Level Safety Review Committee appointed by the Ministry of Railways (MoR) had strongly recommended the elimination of all level crossings, both manned and unmanned, over a period of five years. The committee was of the belief that the amount thus spent would be recovered within seven to eight years through savings in maintenance costs and improved train operations.

The mandate for the rehabilitation of existing bridges under Setu Bharatam lies with the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), while the construction of the RoBs/ RuBs falls under the ambit of Indian Port Rail Corporation Limited (IPRCL). IPRCL was incorporated in July 2015 under the Ministry of Shipping (MoS) (as a part of the government’s Sagarmala initiative), with the objective of improving port connectivity through the construction of highways, railway networks, inland waterways, pipelines and multimodal logistics parks. It is a joint venture between 11 major ports and Rail Vikas Nigam Limited.

An earlier scheme for the removal of level crossings was implemented on a cost-sharing basis, wherein 50 per cent of the cost was borne by the MoRTH and the remaining 50 per cent by the concerned state governments. This resulted in inordinate delays on account of coordination issues between the ministry and the state governments. To overcome this problem, the responsibility of implementing the Setu Bharatam programme was vested with the MoRTH, which will fully fund the scheme, without any interference from the MoR and the state governments.

As of November 2017, nine of the 208 RoBs/RuBs have been transferred from the MoRTH to the MoS for execution. Also, the sanction for constructing two RoBs in Andhra Pradesh worth Rs 1.03 billion and Rs 0.82 billion respectively has been obtained from the MoS. Tenders for these projects were floated by IPRCL in November 2017. The two RoBs will be constructed on an engineering, procurement and construction basis and are scheduled to be completed within two years from the commencement of construction.

Land acquisition poses one of the major challenges for the implementation of the programme. In some cases, the existing level crossings do not have the correct alignment, thereby, resulting in the need for a new alignment which requires the acquisition of land. Obtaining clearances for the land from various agencies is a time-consuming process, which slows down the execution of the programme. Further, in many places, the construction of RoBs/RuBs requires the shifting of several utilities like electric/telephone lines, water pipelines, permanent structures, etc., for which clearances need to be obtained from the concerned departments.

Prior to the commencement of construction, the executing agency is required to obtain approvals from the Commissioner of Railway Safety to ensure adherence to the guidelines aimed at protecting railway tracks and ensuring the safety of running trains. Fast-tracking such approvals is essential to speed up the pace of project execution.

The successful implementation of Setu Bharatam requires a streamlined decision making process and an efficient project management system. The programme will address the safety concerns arising from the presence of level crossings in the country and thereby eliminate the loss of life and property resulting from the same. It will also pave the way for reduction in maintenance costs and bring about efficiency in railway operations.

Based on a presentation by A.S. Garud, Advisor, Projects, IPRCL, at a recent India Infrastructure conference