The roads and highways sector plays a critical role in the growth of the economy. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has been taking numerous digital initiatives to increase operational efficiencies, not just in construction works but also for smooth movement of passenger and freight traffic through enhanced logistical efficiency. In December 2020, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) signed an MoU with the Federal Ministry of Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology of the Republic of Austria for technological cooperation in road infrastructure. The MoU aims to create an effective framework for bilateral cooperation in the fields of road transportation, road/highway infrastructure development, management and administration, road safety, and intelligent transport systems between the two countries. An intelligent transport system will enable interaction between passengers, buses, bus stops and command centres to communicate much-needed information and check for violations.
NHAI has gone fully digital with the launch of its artificial intelligence (AI)-powered big data analytics platform, Data Lake. With this, all official documents and communications are now available online for contractors, concessionaires, consultants and NHAI officials to peruse. NHAI’s entire project management workflow has now been transferred to an online portal-based system, which has been configured with all operations related to project execution, including workflow, timelines and an alert mechanism. With advanced analytics, the Data Lake software can forecast delays and disputes, and give alerts in advance. Apart from expediting decision-making, the system also enables users to take correct and timely decisions. It can predict the financial impact of various approaches based on historical data, and thereby reduce disputes. All project documents and correspondence can be stored in digital format in the cloud-based Data Lake, which also provides geographic information system (GIS) tagging and unique project IDs, making the data easily retrievable at any time and from anywhere. Further, NHAI’s e-Office module is integrated into the system, so that all correspondence can flow digitally in a secure and seamless manner from field units to headquarters. Data Lake has brought revolutionary changes to NHAI, eliminating delays and missing records and enabling quick decision-making and work from anywhere/any time. During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, when a number of organisations are facing serious challenges, NHAI’s employees have been able to work remotely without any fear of physical contact or having to handle physical files. Rather, the lockdown period was used by NHAI to train its employees in using Data Lake.
Recently, the authority also deployed an AI-based facial recognition system to monitor the attendance of field staff. The technology comes with a real-time location capturing feature to track the presence of personnel at a project site. It will be applicable to all key personnel/engineers deployed by the authority, as well as independent engineers and consultants. To make it even more transparent and seamless, the system is linked with Data Lake. The system will capture employee details such as their date, time and location when they log in for the day, and prevent impersonation of employees, consultants and engineers. Moreover, in order to reduce traffic congestion at toll plazas, city roads and highways, the MoRTH has begun real-time monitoring of toll plazas across the country, using a central monitoring system along with a bundle of analytics and quick decision-making outputs. It employs several technologies such as satellite imagery, GIS and remote sensing, along with a proprietary algorithm to remotely monitor the congestion status of roads.
Technologies for electronic toll collection
MoRTH has mandated that all vehicles passing through any toll plaza should have FASTags from February 16, 2021 onwards, failing which they will have to pay double the toll as penalty. Prior to this, the ministry had mandated the fitting of FASTags in the M and N categories of motor vehicles with effect from January 1, 2021. The M and N categories comprise vehicles with at least four wheels that are used to carry passengers (such as standard cars with two, three or four doors), and power-driven vehicles with at least four wheels that are used to carry goods, respectively. FASTags, which facilitate electronic payment of fees at toll plazas, were introduced in 2016. To push the Digital India initiative further, a “Check Balance Status” feature has been added to the “My FASTag” app. The app now shows a user’s FASTag wallet balance in a colour-coded format: green for sufficient balance, orange for low balance, and red for negative balance. Moreover, users can instantly recharge their wallets via the app or at a recharge facility at a toll plaza point of sale. More recently, NHAI decided to do away with the requirement of maintaining a minimum amount in the FASTag wallet. The authority decided to remove the mandatory threshold amount, which was paid by users in addition to a security deposit. The move is aimed at ensuring seamless movement at electronic toll plazas. However, after crossing a toll plaza, if a user’s account balance becomes negative, their bank can recover the amount from the security deposit, which is then to be replenished at the time of the next recharge by the user.
The mandatory FASTag for highways initiative is expected to help save Rs 200 billion per annum on fuel, and boost revenue by at least Rs 100 billion. Following its enforcement, toll collection has seen consistent growth, and NHAI’s daily collection through FASTags has reached over Rs 1 billion.
ICICI Bank has recently announced a collaboration with Google Pay for the issuance of FASTags through the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) on the payment app, becoming the first bank to do so. This will enable Google Pay users to order, track and even recharge ICICI Bank FASTags conveniently and digitally through UPI on the payment app itself. Further, this initiative ensures the safety of the applicants, as they will not have to visit merchants or toll locations to buy FASTags.
The MoRTH has also finalised a global positioning system (GPS)-based technology for toll collection to ensure seamless movement of vehicles across the country. With this, the country is expected to become “toll booth-free” within the next two years. Under the new technology, the toll-amount will be deducted directly from bank accounts based on the movement of vehicles. While all new commercial vehicles come with vehicle tracking systems these days, the government will come up with a plan to install GPS technology in older vehicles. The government expects to generate a toll revenue of Rs 1.34 trillion in the next five years through this technology.
Vendor Performance Evaluation System
NHAI has developed a Vendor Performance Evaluation System to act as a transparent and comprehensive performance rating system for its consultants, contractors and concessionaires. Vendors will be required to conduct self-assessment and upload documents related to their project activities on the portal. These submissions will be reviewed at multiple levels by NHAI, and a rating will be generated for the vendor. Vendors who fail to upload the requisite documents will not be allowed to participate in NHAI’s bidding process.
The portal contains provisions for rating projects according to their mode of implementation and status of completion under the build-operate-transfer (BOT) (toll), BOT (annuity) and hybrid annuity models, as well as for engineering, procurement and construction works. These ratings will apply to the authority’s own engineers, independent engineers, and detailed project report (DPR) consultants. To ensure that the evaluation is done in the most objective and balanced way, the vendor rating, generated after multilevel reviews, will be shared with the vendor, who will be given an opportunity to appeal against it.
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 project-specific issues 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 role of the roads and highways sector in the overall transport sector continues to be recognised with technology-based initiatives adopted right from the initial stage of project preparation all the way to construction, and operations and maintenance. Technological advancements are being deployed to enhance service levels for passengers and freight transport. This trend indicates an increased focus on innovation and the use of data analytics-based technology tools to unlock operational efficiencies in the roads and highways sector.