Interview with R.K. Pandey

“NHAI is striving for bigger targets”

R.K. Pandey

Road development in India has made huge progress over the past few years. Notwithstanding the pandemic, project awards and completion have been touching new highs. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has been pivotal in the growth story of the sector. Apart from the use of alternative construction materials and techniques, the authority is digitalising the entire project life cycle to ensure transparency and minimise disputes. In an interview with Indian Infrastructure, R.K. Pandey, member (projects), NHAI, talks about the key achievements and targets of the authority, highlights the digital initiatives being taken and discusses the key focus areas. Excerpts…

What have been the key achievements of NHAI during the past year?

During the past year, the key focus areas of NHAI have been project completion and awar­ding. It has awarded a maximum length of rou­ghly over 6,000 km and completed arou­nd 4,330 km of projects. Receiving an appo­in­ted date from NHAI has been faster than ever in the past year. This is due to a number of policy shifts, including that a project will be awar­ded only after completion of pre-construction activities.

Four world records have been created on the stretches of NHAI. These records involve both flexible and concrete roads. NHAI has be­en proactive with regard to conciliation as part of systemic reforms and has resolved more than 52 conciliation cases in the past year (ro­u­ghly one dispute being resolved per week). In order to address the concerns of stakeholders, NHAI has taken effective measures, such as modifying the concession agreements for build-operate-transfer (BOT) and hybrid annuity model projects. Further, the process of obtaining environmental and other clearances has been simplified and expedited.

What are the road award and construction targets for 2022-23?

NHAI intends to increase the pace of project awards compared to the last three years. It will complete awarding projects under Bharatmala Pariyojana Phase I by the end of 2022-23. Addi­tionally, NHAI hopes to complete around 4,500 km of roads in 2022-23.

What has been the impact of high material costs? Have these costs been passed on to NHAI?

The high costs are not fully passed on to NHAI since the authority estimates material costs on the basis of current market prices. There is also a system in place to compensate for price escalation, which is based on empirical formulae but may not reflect the entire escalation, although there is a provision for that.

“NHAI plans to mandate the use of digital technologies for all contractors.”

What are NHAI’s plans with regard to the promotion of sustainable materials in construction?

There is a growing demand for underpasses, which has prompted an increase in the construction of embankments. For greenfield acc­ess-con­trolled highways, the average height of an embankment is between 3 and 4 metr­es. NHAI utilises fly ash and other waste material for em­bankment construction. However, the authority is trying to enforce measures that minimise the need for construction materials. As an example, for soil stabilisation, the quality of the soil is be­ing enhanced by mixing chemicals, cement or lime, thus making it suitable for road construction. NHAI is also promoting the use of geotextiles as an alternative construction material.

NHAI has moved away from conventional construction methods to the use of high-str­en­gth material such as high performance con­cre­te and fibre-reinforced bars. In addition, a number of bridge projects have been underta­ken utilising high performance concrete, resulting in the construction of large-span bridges. Contrac­tors and concessionaires are entitled to adopt any construction method they see fit, provided it yields satisfying results.

What are some of the initiatives with regard to the use of new technologies?

NHAI has introduced a number of digital practices, such as light detection and ranging technology and fully automatic data capturing gear. NHAI employs cloud-based Data Lake software, which is a database of all information including correspondence between or requests of contractors and concessionaires.

The Data Lake dashboard gives an accurate overview of the number of requests recei­v­ed for time extension and scope modifica­ti­on. This digital system has already begun to yie­­ld positive outcomes, in addition to streamlining bill payme­nt processes. It keeps track of bills submitted and paid. Previously, NHAI had established rules requiring the payment of all bills wit­h­in a specified number of days. How­ever, this was seen as an arduous effort due to the high volume of bills received daily. Data Lake provides the means to effortlessly monitor the same.

Previously, contract management was overseen by engineers, as it is their role to determine the quality of the construction or operation. However, in an attempt to eliminate human subjectivity, NHAI has made the use of network survey vehicles mandatory to ensure that work is carried out in accordance with the contract. Every month, drone videography is carried out for a variety of projects, allowing for a better un­derstanding of a project’s progress.

For the Lucknow-Kanpur expressway project, NHAI has mandated that all equipment be equipped with sensors, and that profiling be performed according to the drawing without human intervention, providing a clear picture of not only the construction’s progress but also its quality.

These digital measures were initia­lly un­der­­taken as pilot projects, for which the feedback received was favourable. In the near fu­ture, NHAI plans to mandate the use of digital technologies for all contractors.

“NHAI intends to increase the pace of project awards as compared to the last three years. It will complete
awarding projects under Bharatmala Pariyojana Phase I by the end of 2022-23. Additionally, NHAI hopes to complete around 4,500 km of roads in 2022-23.”

What are the steps being taken to reduce the carbon footprint?

The initial issue with estimating the carbon foot­print was the absence of a quantitative me­thod of calculation. However, such mathematical tools are now available, and NHAI int­en­ds to adopt one of them. Despite the lack of a proper mathematical metric, the authority ma­kes responsible judgements during the course of construction.

What are the challenges in the sector that require immediate attention?

NHAI is striving for bigger targets, which necessitates a focus on the use of sustainable materials and prior cost optimisation in order to ac­quire technology that can expedite construction. NHAI has already addressed concerns re­la­ted to dispute resolution, land acquisition and pre-construction activities/approvals.

Availability of materials is an area of concern, due to which NHAI assists contractors in acquiring the necessary materials to maintain the established pace of construction. The au­thority is also in contact with state governments in an effort to obtain all permissions promptly.

What are the future plans with respect to asset monetisation?

In order to implement the Bharatmala Pariyo­jana, NHAI is tapping the market to raise funds. As­set monetisation is one of the initiatives th­rough which the authority is raising private capital. NHAI is aiming to raise around Rs 250 billion through this route in this financial year. Toll-operate-transfer and infrastructure investment trusts are the two asset monetisation mo­dels that have performed effectively.

What are the key focus areas and priorities of the authority for the next two years?

Quality road construction is a top priority for NHAI. Due to the hasty bidding process and the frequency of construction failures, such as str­uc­tural collapse, it is essential to create roa­ds of high quality. NHAI’s second goal is to deliver services to paying users of roads who expect the facilities they pay for to perform effectively. In the past two to three years, only 2-3 per cent of the overall project awards have been un­der BOT mode. NHAI has identified a few potential BOT projects to be awarded this year. Follow­ing amendment of the BOT concession agreement, the authority expects the share of BOT awards to increase, going forward.

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