The Road Ahead: Challenges and the way forward for highway development

Challenges and the way forward for highway development

The road sector is witnessing an increased pace of project award and completion. The ambitious Bharatmala programme is expected to be a game changer for the highways sector. With several policies in place and a number of projects being put on the block, substantial opportunities are on offer for the stakeholders involved. However, there are some issues which could prove to be a challenge in achieving the ambitious targets.

Indian Infrastructure hosted a special interactive session in association with Eicher on “Road Construction in India” in New Delhi on November 15, 2018. The session focused on the National Highways Authority of India’s (NHAI) perspective on road development, challenges faced by contractors, and the role of technology in the sector. Different views were shared to throw light on various aspects of road construction in the country.

NHAI perspective

Over the years, road development in the country has witnessed significant changes. In the initial years, road construction was entirely in the public domain with projects being planned, financed and supervised by the government. However, gradually different aspects of road construction were thrown open to the private sector. Today, the private sector has a major role to play in road construction in the country.

The government launched a new umbrella programme, the Bharatmala Pariyojana, in October 2017. The development of 24,800 km of road works will be taken up in Phase I of the programme. In addition, the scope of work of Phase I also includes 10,000 km of balance road works under the National Highways Development Programme. Origin-destination studies were conducted across 600 districts to identify corridors under Bharatmala. This approach helps in planning projects on the basis of life cycle costs rather than capital costs. In order to overcome the issue of poor quality of detailed project report (DPR) preparation, technology is being relied upon to reduce human intervention. Further, for faster dispute resolution, NHAI has set up two conciliation committees.

Contractor viewpoint

Contractors feel that the challenges in the road sector have remained the same over the past 10 years. Despite achieving before-time completion for several projects, some of the projects are still languishing. Another issue being pointed out is the lack of a feedback mechanism, wherein the user perspective can be taken into consideration.

Over the years, a major difference is visible in the execution pattern of projects. Earlier, the contractors’ problems were minimal but now execution has become a major issue. There is a need to bring about a change in the bidding process by restricting the number of bidders and not allowing them to quote below the estimated price. Currently, at the time of bidding, contractors take delays of one-two years into consideration. On the other hand, new entrants quote cut- throat prices. This severely affects the quality of roads. The contractor is also faced with several inherent problems such as mobilisation of resources, finances, manpower, etc., which need to be dealt with. One of the major roadblocks facing project contractors in project implementation is the shortcomings in DPR preparation. There is a need to prepare good quality DPRs to ensure that all the technicalities have been addressed. Coordination between the state and central governments is pivotal to speed up the project implementation process. A model paper needs to be put in place to define the procedure for obtaining approvals so that the process is streamlined.

At present, the biggest challenge before the road sector is the organisational set-up. There is a need for all the stakeholders to work as equal partners rather than as employers and clients. If the involved agencies work in tandem, it will help in reducing cost and time overruns. The limited role played by the independent engineers is also an issue.

In addition, contractors feel that the bidding process for a project should commence only after all the clearances have been obtained and encumbrances cleared. Either sufficient time should be given to the bidders for project evaluation or the DPRs should be of such good quality that bidders are able to bid on their basis. Delay caused by non-availability of land is still a key issue.

Contractors have always been at risk, both financially and technically. This is on account of lack of support from the authorities involved. Once the tender for the project has been floated, it is important that every procedure be undertaken in a timely manner. There should be no scope for misinterpretation of the contract.

Contractors need to ensure that the right kind of manpower is available for the project. Proper skills need to be developed, and this is where the role of the management comes into play. Absorption of technology is paramount for project design. Procurement of resources such as aggregates, sand, etc., as well as a company’s ability to manage its finances is also important.

Road development in Delhi: Plans and progress

Traffic congestion is a major problem in Delhi as most roads handle traffic beyond their capacity. Due to traffic congestion, Delhi and the National Capital Region lose nearly 420 million man hours every month while people commute between home and work using public transport. Some of the major issues encountered in traffic management include coordination amongst various authorities such as the police department, the Delhi Jal Board, etc.; water-logging, drainage and desilting; political, administrative and bureaucratic issues; land acquisition issues; encroachments; and multiplicity of authorities. In order to ensure comprehensive maintenance, the Delhi public works department regularly undertakes strengthening and resurfacing of roads. Further, the latest technologies and maintenance vans have been deployed.

Over the years, the implementation of road projects through public-private partnerships has been found to be infeasible in the national capital as toll collection has not been made possible. Therefore, the majority of road projects in the state are being/have been implemented using the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) mode, wherein the project is entirely funded by either the state or central government.

Construction of flyovers in Delhi can be divided into three phases – up to 1982, between 1982 and 2010, and 2010 onwards. Prior to 1982, only rail overbridges (RoBs) were in place. These included a two-lane bridge at Wazirabad, a four-lane bridge at ITO, a four-lane bridge at Nizamuddin and a four-lane bridge at Kalindi Kunj. In 1982, the state received an impetus on flyover construction for the first time, with four major flyovers being constructed in a record period of 18 months. Some of the major bridges/flyovers constructed during 1980s are the ISBT flyover-cum-eight-lane bridge on the Yamuna river, the Hanuman Setu and the Visvesvaraya Setu. The 1990s saw the expansion of both the ITO and Nizamuddin bridges from four to eight lanes. In addition, two clover leaves were added in the ITO flyover. From 2000 onwards, several new techniques of construction such as precast segmental construction and composite construction were taken up. In addition, integrated flyovers were introduced as they require lower maintenance and pre-stressing couplers were also used for the first time for two flyovers on National Highway (NH)-24. In 2010, the second major phase of flyover, underpass, elevated corridor, RoB, foot overbridge, subway and multilevel grade separator construction took place. The major projects undertaken include a three-level grade separator at Ghazipur, the Outer Ring Road from IIT Gate to NH-8 intersection, elevated corridor over Barapullah Nallah, and the Geeta Colony bridge.

Several lessons have been learnt from the execution of these projects, with the need for adoption of the latest technology for project implementation being the foremost. Further, it is important for project managers to track progress on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to prevent cost and time overruns. In addition, third-party assurance for monitoring quality is also needed.

Focus on technology

Given the scale of road infrastructure development, it is important that the transportation solutions involved at various stages of road construction also evolve. Eicher has been an important player in this area. It is a part of VE Commercial Vehicles (VECV), a joint venture between Volvo and Eicher which was set up in 2008. VECV’s business areas include Eicher trucks and buses, Volvo trucks, non-automotive engines, bus body and application manufacturing, and Eicher engineering components. Through the wide range of products on offer, VECV aims to help contractors in delivering projects within the required cost and time. It is working towards enhancing efficiency and productivity, which will help in timely project delivery. It has a range of versatile products such as transit mixture and haulage tippers for every phase of road construction.

Eicher has launched an innovative and intelligent telematics system, Eicher Live, which helps in keeping track of fuel consumption and maintenance needs and monitoring truck movement. The system helps in maximising productivity and profitability.

Improved outlook

Given the adoption of new models of implementation and the announcement of several big-ticket programmes, the outlook for the road sector is positive. However, the availability of raw materials, land acquisition, lack of skilled manpower and quality of independent engineers continue to remain a challenge. In order to meet the tall construction targets set, the above issues need to be tackled in a time-bound manner. In addition, proper project preparation and due diligence is needed to ensure that only viable projects are put on the block.