Progress and Potential: Road development in the Northeast

Road development in the Northeast

Within five years of operations, National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) has taken major strides in the development of road infrastructure in the Northeast. The corporation surveys, designs, builds, operates, maintains and upgrades national highways and strategic roads, including interconnecting roads, in those parts of the country that share borders with neighbouring countries – the seven sister states of the Northeast along with Sikkim, West Bengal, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

NHIDCL’s project portfolio entails works under the BharatmalaPariyojana, the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme, the South Asia Sub-Regional Economic Cooperation Programme, works under National Highways (NH) (Original), the ChardhamMahamargVikasPariyojana in Uttrakhand, and the rehabilitation/ upgradation of orphan roads under the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region.

Project portfolio

As of August 2020, NHIDCL is engaged in the development of 313 projects spanning about 12,271 km in length at an estimated cost of nearly Rs 1.82 trillion. Of these, for 173 projects spanning 3,874 km, civil works are ongoing, while detailed project reports are being prepared for the balance 140 projects spanning about 8,397 km.

Award and completion activity

During the ongoing financial year, NHIDCL has awarded road projects spanning about 341 km (up to August 2020). As per its project portfolio, the maximum length of about 1,050 km was awarded in 2017-18. State-wise, Manipur has recorded the maximum length of awarded projects till date, followed by Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. Meanwhile, in the current fiscal year, 198 km of road length has been completed by NHIDCL as of August 2020.

 Challenges along the way

NHIDCL has been facing numerous challenges in the timely implementation of projects in the north-eastern region. One of the major issues faced by the corporation is the difficult topography of the region, characterised by mountainous and difficult terrains and accompanied by heavy rainfall. This results in a working season of only four-five months in a year. Besides, land acquisition remains a perpetual problem in this region too, leading to implementation delays and cost escalations. Several initiatives, such as the launch of BhoomiRashi (a portal for land acquisition-related processes) and engagement with locals are being taken up to resolve this issue. Another major challenge is NHIDCL’s heavy dependence on third-party engineers and engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contractors. Most of the corporation’s projects are executed on an EPC basis, under which a contractor and the authority’s engineer (AE) are appointed. The work of the AE typically needs to be reviewed, leading to greater effort and time overruns. Further, concerns regarding the financial viability of projects, insufficient private investment and reluctance of contractors to execute projects in hilly regions also hinder project implementation.

The lack of a skilled workforce has also been cited as a key challenge. To address this, NHIDCL has been focusing on skill development and is upskilling workers at its project sites under the PradhanMantriKaushalVikasYojana in collaboration with the National Skill Development Corporation.

Other challenges faced by the corporation include limited local techno-managerial capabilities, obtaining statutory clearances, utility shifting, challenges associated with slope stabilisation and cross-drainage structures.

Going forward, NHIDCL aims to mitigate these challenges and ensure fast-paced construction of national highways and other infrastructure in the Northeast and various strategic areas of the country. It is actively implementing the central government’s “Look East” policy which aims to promote economic cooperation and cultural ties and develop a strategic relationship with countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Providing enhanced connectivity to states in the north-eastern region is an essential component of the government’s road development agenda.