The past few months have been quite eventful for the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). A slew of digital initiatives were introduced by the authority, especially in light of the virus outbreak, to enhance transparency, ease dispute resolution and monitor projects in real time. Apart from this, the government’s focus on green technologies in road construction needs special mention. It is continuously promoting the use of sustainable materials to increase the durability of roads and highways in the country.
In one of the biggest reforms undertaken, NHAI has gone fully digital with the launch of a unique cloud-based and artificial intelligence-powered big data analytics platform – the Data Lake and Project Management Software. NHAI’s entire project management work has been transformed from a manual system to an online portal-based system, wherein all project execution operations including “workflow with time lines” and an “alert mechanism” have been configured. All project documentation, contractual decisions and approvals are now only being done through the portal.
With advanced analytics, the Data Lake software will also forecast delays and likely disputes and give alerts beforehand. Thus, apart from expediting decision-making, it will enable NHAI to take correct and timely decisions as the system is likely to predict the financial impact of different alternatives based on historical data. This will also help reduce disputes.
NHAI has a history of having a large number of arbitration cases pending with huge amounts in claims and counterclaims. Most of the disputes are generic in nature such as delays in handing over of encumbrance-free sites; shifting of utilities; idling charges for plant, machinery, equipment and manpower; and delays in decisions. Going forward, these disputes can be minimised as the Data Lake software has provisions to keep track of and a check on all these parameters and will ensure that work is carried out within the stipulated timeline in a transparent manner. As all the processes will be portal based, decision-making is expected to be faster and will eventually reduce chances of litigation in the future.
All project documents and correspondence will be stored in a digital format in the cloud-based Data Lake linked with GIS tagging and a unique project ID, so that the project data can be easily retrieved as and when required from any location. NHAI’s contractors, concessionaires, consultants, authority engineers, independent engineers, project directors and regional officers have already started using it extensively. The authority’s e-Office module has also been integrated with the system so that all correspondence can flow digitally in a secure manner from field units to the headquarters seamlessly.
During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, when a number of organisations are facing serious challenges in working, NHAI’s employees have been able to work remotely without any fear of physical contact and touching of physical files. Rather, the lockdown period was used by NHAI to train its employees in using Data Lake.
NHAI will carry out pilot studies of the country’s first gantry-based tolling system on the Delhi-Meerut Expressway and the Panipat-Ambala section of National Highway-1. Under the new system, toll charges will be automatically deducted from the FASTag wallet linked to the vehicle registration number after reading the registration number plate, without the need for vehicles to stop or slow down for this purpose. During the pilot studies, the actual amount will not be deducted from the users’ FASTag accounts. The pilot will be for a period of three months on each stretch and performance will be reviewed regularly.
Under the new system – e-FASTag – there will be no physical toll plaza on the six-lane access-controlled stretch of the Delhi-Meerut Expressway. Besides, automatic number plate recognition cameras will be fixed at all entry and exit points of the expressway. Once the system is established, commuters will pay only for the distance travelled, rather than paying for the entire expressway stretch. The pilot study for the Delhi-Meerut Expressway will start by the end of December 2020, though it is likely to start earlier on the Panipat-Ambala stretch.
Rating system for stakeholders
NHAI has developed a vendor performance evaluation system to establish a transparent and comprehensive performance rating system for its consultants, contractors and concessionaires. The vendors will be required to conduct a self-assessment and upload the documents related to the project activities being executed by them on the portal. The submissions will be reviewed at multiple levels in NHAI, based on which the vendor’s rating will be generated. Vendors that fail to upload the requisite documents will not be allowed to participate in NHAI’s bidding process.
The portal contains a provision for rating projects according to the mode of implementation and status of completion under the build-operate-transfer (BOT) (toll), BOT (annuity), hybrid annuity model, and engineering, procurement and construction model and by the authority’s engineers, independent engineers and detailed project report consultants. To ensure that the evaluation is done in the most objective and balanced way, the vendor rating generated post multilevel reviews will be shared with the vendor. The vendor will also be given an opportunity to appeal against the generated rating.
In February 2020, NHAI launched a web portal, GATI, to enable faster decision-making. Its core objective is to enable contractors, concessionaires, consultants and toll operators to raise project- and construction-related issues and grievances. These stakeholders can simply register on the portal by filling in basic project-related details and raise any project-specific issue such as delays in decisions or payments, or lodge other grievances that they may wish to get addressed on a priority basis. Every grievance will be monitored daily by a team of NHAI officials.
The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has called for reducing the cost of road construction by 25 per cent, and identifying modern and green technologies that can contribute towards this. The ministry has also asserted that specific regions such as hilly areas, border areas and coastal areas need different approaches and technologies for road construction. It has also stressed upon using local indigenous material such as jute and coir for road strengthening purposes.
The MoRTH has been focusing on reducing the cost and improving the quality of road construction. It has urged the industry to increase the use of plastic and rubber waste in road construction. Apart from this, the ministry has asserted that the use of waste products such as slag from steel plants and fly ash from power plants should also be encouraged.
Further, a variety of alternative construction materials are being used to improve the quality and prolong the life of highways. Major cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Pune have actively started using shredded plastic waste in road construction.
The government is also set to launch a pattern design system for precast. The MoRTH has urged the industry to adopt world-class technologies in road construction and has called upon the industry to come up with a plan with a 10-year defect liability period for constructing bitumen roads (it is currently is five years). Further, utilising advanced construction techniques can speed up the construction of highways and the development of mega projects.
NHAI has developed a mobile app, Hari Path, to monitor the location, growth, species details, maintenance activities, targets and achievements of each of its field units for each and every plant under all its plantation projects. Besides, the authority has also recently undertaken Harit Bharat Sankalp, a nationwide plantation drive, in line with its commitment to promote environment protection and sustainability. Under this initiative, NHAI planted over 2.5 million plants in 25 days along national highway stretches between July 21, 2020 and August 15, 2020. The drive takes the cumulative number of plantations during the current year to 3.52 million.
While the year 2020 has been disruptive for the economy, the government’s policy response has sent a strong message to stakeholders regarding its commitment of bringing the economy back on track. The emphasis on sustainability and recent technology initiatives as well as the intent of achieving the National Infrastructure Pipeline targets will go a long way towards encouraging growth in the road sector.