India has the second largest road network in the world. National highways constitute only 2.2 per cent of the total road network, yet carry about 40 per cent of the total road traffic. While there has been a significant improvement in the pace of road construction, a lot still needs to be done to address the issue of the rising cost of road construction. In his keynote address at a recent conference organised by Indian Infrastructure, Nitin Jairam Gadkari, minister of road transport and highways, shared his perspective on the current state of the road sector, the key priorities and achievements so far, and the need for innovation in technology and raw material for road construction. Excerpts…
Targets and achievements
Road infrastructure plays a critical role in the growth of the Indian economy since about 70 per cent of the goods traffic and 90 per cent of the passenger traffic is carried by the road network. The government is investing over Rs 20 trillion on road development in the country as a part of the National Infrastructure Pipeline. In the Union Budget 2021-22, the government has allocated Rs 1.18 trillion to the road sector, the highest ever allocation made to the sector. The government has also set a target to build roads worth Rs 15 trillion over a period of two years. During financial year 2021, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) constructed 13,327 km of national highways – 21 per cent more than the target, despite the Covid-19 situation. During 2021-22, the government awarded 1,681 km and constructed 2,284 km of highways till June 2021. The ministry aims to construct 60,000 km of national highways by 2024 at a construction rate of 40 km per day. The current construction rate stands at 37 km per day, which is the highest ever in the world.
Progress under the Bharatmala Pariyojana
The government has launched the Bharatmala Pariyojana, which envisages the development of 34,800 km of national highways at a cost of about Rs 10 trillion. So far, contracts have been awarded for a length of 13,521 km, while detailed project reports for 17,820 km of projects are currently in the pipeline. Apart from this, bids have been invited for projects spanning 4,800 km. Under the programme, the ministry is developing 22 greenfield expressways spanning about 2,500 km and access-controlled corridors spanning about 5,500 km at a capital cost of Rs 3.32 trillion. Of this, 3,728 km of greenfield projects have already been awarded and the rest will be awarded during the current financial year. These corridors are expected to be completed by 2024-25, with projects spanning 900 km to be completed in financial year 2022. The World Bank recently signed a $500 million project agreement with the central government to build green national highway corridors in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.
Innovative funding strategies
The government is implementing innovative financing strategies such as monetisation of highway assets through infrastructure investment trusts (InvITs), the toll-operate-transfer (TOT) model and special purpose vehicles (SPVs) to enable wider investor participation. The National Highways Authority of India has targeted to raise Rs 50 billion through the InvIT route. Besides, the ministry plans to raise Rs 1 trillion through the TOT model in the next five years. The government has also removed the requirement for earnest money deposits when bidding for new tenders, in order to enable wider participation from industry players in highway construction. Further, the ministry has relaxed the technical and financial eligibility criteria for bidders. Besides, 100 per cent foreign direct investment has been permitted in the road sector.
Focus on e-tolling and road safety
The government plans to install a GPS-based toll collection system for simple and efficient traffic operation. The monthly toll collection has now reached Rs 20 billion, that is, 86 per cent of the pre-Covid levels.
Enhancement of road safety is a high priority area for the government. A total of 5,893 accident black spots have been identified along the national highways. Of these, 80 per cent have already been rectified, and the rest will be rectified by September 2021. Road safety audits have been completed for 36,000 km and an additional length of 40,000 km has been targeted for auditing by 2024. With multiple road safety interventions, there has been a reduction in the rate of road accidents from 0.47 per lane km in 2018 to 0.3 per lane km in 2020.
In order to reduce the congestion of corridors and enhance logistics efficiency, 35 locations have been identified for the development of multimodal logistics parks (MMLPs). The foundation stone has already been laid for the first MMLPs in Jogighopa, Assam. Apart from enhancing logistics efficiency, the MMLPs will generate employment opportunities for many.
The ministry has also undertaken tunnelling projects worth over Rs 1 trillion in the hilly regions of the country. National highway assets such as highway furniture and land parcels are being reposited in the digital road asset management system. Asset data for all highways will now be collected by network survey vehicles.
Focus on cost-effective construction materials and technologies
Given the rising cost of raw material such as cement and steel, the need of the hour is to reduce the cost of road construction without compromising on quality. The ministry has been encouraging construction companies to look for alternatives to cement and steel, such as plastic, jute, choir and waste material. Life cycle cost criteria should be used for choosing the right material for road construction. The ministry recently issued a guideline outlining the use of 8 per cent waste plastic in the construction of bituminous pavements and service roads. So far, 703 km of roads have been constructed using waste plastic. Moreover, recycling of bituminous pavement material has been made possible using innovative technologies. MoRTH is also working towards innovations in bridge construction. Meanwhile, the use of compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas and ethanol is being encouraged for the operation of road construction equipment in order to reduce the dependence on diesel and petrol.
Completing the upcoming 22 green express highways, removing black spots on national highways, reducing road accidents by 50 per cent, achieving 100 per cent penetration of electronic toll collection on national highways, implementing advanced traffic management systems, and resolving claims worth Rs 415 billion are among the key focus areas of the government.
The government is also coming up with the second phase of the Bharatmala Pariyojana. In its endeavour to reduce the construction cost of highways, the government is open to suggestions from highway developers and contractors regarding the use of innovative construction materials and technologies. Besides, in line with its Green Highways Mission, the government expects developers and contractors to ensure adequate plantation along national highways. It has also been observed that the road engineers engaged by contractors and consultants for road construction and maintenance lack the required competencies. Capacity building through extensive training is the need of the