Interview with Nitin Gadkari: “India will have a highway network spanning 200,000 km by 2024”

“India will have a highway network spanning 200,000 km by 2024”

Nitin Jairam Gadkari, Ministry of Road 20 Transport and Highways

The government has taken a series of measures to  give a fillip to road sector growth. Its focus on removing pre-construction bottlenecks, expediting project execution and improving the quality of construction has proven to be effective in improving the sector’s overall performance. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) is working towards achieving the 100 km per day construction target. In an interview with Indian Infrastructure, Nitin Jairam Gadkari, union minister of road transport and highways, talked about the sector’s recent achievements and initiatives, the role of alternative fuels, and the ministry’s targets and priorities. Excerpts…

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

The total national highway (NH) length, which st­ood at 91,000 km in 2014, has reached 0.14 million km in 2022 (till April 30, 2022). The to­tal length of national highways constr­uc­ted in the last eight years is about 78,000 km. The past one year has been momentous for the mi­nistry as it has achieved several world records, including:

  • Construction of a 75 km long single-lane bi­tu­minous concrete road in a record time of 105 hours and 33 minutes. This stretch is a part of NH-53 (Amravati to Akola section) in Maharashtra.
  • A highway construction rate of 37 km per day.
  • Laying of the highest quantity of dense bitumen over a road length of 50 km (single la­ne) in 100 hours for the Delhi-Vadodara Ex­pre­ss­way project in Gujarat.
  •  Construction of a 2.5 km long, four-lane ceme­nt concrete road near Vadodara in 24 hours.
  • Laying of a 26 km long single-lane bitumen ro­ad at the Solapur-Bijapur section of NH-52 in just 21 hours.
  • Longest multilayer (double-decker) viaduct (3.2 km) constructed between three metro st­a­tions by the Nagpur Metro and the Natio­nal Highways Authority of India (NHAI).
  • Construction of the longest steel bridge of India – Mahatma Gandhi Setu – a four-lane, 5.6 km long bridge connecting Patna with Ha­ji­p­uri, over the river Ganga in Bihar. For the first time, a balanced cantilever bridge su­­­perstructure was replaced with a simply supported one.

Around 27 million saplings have been plan­ted along highways and the first intelligent tra­ns­port system has been installed on the six-lane Eastern Peripheral Expressway at Dasna, Ghaziabad. Further, the ministry has conceptualised an emergency landing facility on national highways and the first such facility has been inaugurated on NH-925 in Barmer, Rajasthan.

On the policy front, the Motor Vehicles Act was amended for the first time since 1988 and the ministry came out with the Motor Vehicles Amendment Act, 2019. BS-VI emission norms (directly from BS-IV) were made mandatory with effect from April 1, 2020. Other key initiatives include the issuance of an All India Tourist Per­mit online to enable seamless movement of to­urist and passenger vehicles across the country, the announcement of the National Auto­mo­bile Scrappage Policy for removing old, unfit and polluting vehicles, and the passing of the Good Samaritan Law to protect responders to accident victims from any form of harassment.

What are the specific steps being taken by the ministry to fast-track construction, reduce costs and improve the quality of construction?

The ministry has achieved a record of the hi­gh­est-ever per day highway construction in In­d­ia. The pace of highway construction rose fr­om 12 km per day in 2014-15 to 37 km per day in 2020-21, which is an increase of more than three times. About 13,327 km of national highways were constructed in 2014-15 ag­ain-st 4,410 km in 2020-21. This was be­ca­u­se of the efforts of ministry officials, engine­e­rs and contractors.

MoRTH has also adopted a comprehensive strategy for the development of roads. Roads are being developed through the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) mode; the hybrid annuity model (HAM); and the build-op­erate-transfer (BOT) mode. Funding sources have also been diversified to include cess, bud­ge­tary allocations, long-term debt and procee­ds from monetisation. This allows NHAI to tap appropriate sources of funding based on the requirement. NHAI has also been able to take advantage of the liquidity in the banking system to raise debt at very attractive rates.

With a large inventory of completed roads and others that will be returning to NHAI from BOT concessionaires, NHAI is monetising road assets as a major source of funding to pare debt as well as develop new roads. Technical and financial criteria have been relaxed to en­hance ease of doing business. It has been en­sured that 90 per cent of the land required is made available before the appointed date for the start of a project. A minister-level Group of Infrastructure has been created under my chairmanship to resolve approval or clearance issues related to environment and forests, railways, defence and civil aviation. We are also allowing 100 per cent foreign direct investment in the road sector.

Toll collection has already crossed the pre-Covid level and is rising at a rapid rate. Today, about 97 per cent of toll collection on the na­tional highways takes place through FASTag. I am sure that we will be able to collect about Rs 2 trillion as toll by 2025.

Land acquisition is a key function of highway development and the ministry has mandated the integration of digital platforms to str­eamline and accelerate the pace of land acquisition. NHAI has implemented a stuck projects policy and is fast-tracking the resolution of pending disputes through a one-time settleme­nt process.

“Our vision is to develop a safe, efficient and sustainable national highway network to accelerate regional connectivity and inclusive socio-economic growth.”

The MoRTH is developing greenfield expre­ssways and access-controlled corridors in the co­un­try under the BharatmalaPariyojana. Ab­out 65,000 km of the highway network is being developed with a minimum configuration of divided four-lane highways. It is expected that the travelling speed will increase by 25-30 per cent. The distance between Delhi and Mumbai will be reduced to just 12 hours by car and 20-22 hours by truck. The travel time between Delhi and Meerut will be only 40-45 minutes. Passengers will be able to travel from Delhi to Dehradun in two hours (by 2023), from Delhi to Haridwar in two hours (by 2023), from Delhi to Jaipur in two hours (by December 2022), from Delhi to Amritsar in four hours (by 2024), from Delhi to Katra in six hours (by 2024), from Delhi to Srinagar in eight hours (by 2023-24), and from Chennai to Bengaluru in two hours (by 2023). There will be seamless connectivity for the Chardham/Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. The travel time from Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand to the Lipulek pass at the Indo-China border will be reduced to just five to six hours. About 14,000 km of the national highway network is be­ing de­veloped in the north-eastern states. The total NH length has increased by 33 per cent in the past eight years at an investment of Rs 410 billion. Under the PM Gati Shakti plan, MoRTH is connecting all north-eastern state capitals with four-lane national highways or with two alternative arrangements of two-lane highways. It has focused extensively on increasing connectivity to 124 aspirational districts. The ministry has constructed 6,700 km of the highway network in the aspirational districts. The development of ab­out 2,000 km of roads is envisaged for providing connectivity to border areas, as well as in­ter­national connectivity, un­der Phase I of the BharatmalaPariyojana. Our vision is to develop a safe, efficient and sustainable national highway network to accelerate regional connectivity and inclusive socio-economic growth.

“The ministry has achieved a record of the highestever per day highway construction in India. The pace of highway construction rose from 12 km per day in 2014-15 to 37 km per day in 2020-21.”

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

Quarrying of a large quantity of naturally occurring construction materials has two monumental impacts. First, it causes irreparable degradation to the environment and ecosystems. Se­cond, it rapidly depletes our scarce natural re­sources. Meanwhile, a huge quantity of was­te is generated from different sources – do­m­e­s­tic, industrial, mining, commercial and cons­tr­uc­tion/demolition – and management of waste is a big challenge.

The ministry is promoting the use of fly ash, iron slag, waste plastic, waste rubber and demolition waste in the construction of highways. It is encouraging the use of modified bi­tu­men made by mixing waste rubber and waste plastic. This will resolve disposal issues with waste tyres and waste plastics, and contribute to the Clean India Mission. MoRTH is also promoting the use of biomass-based bio-binders, which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent. It has come out with a policy circular regarding the use of ultrahigh performance fibre-reinforced concrete in the design and construction of structures/bri­d­ges of national highways. Using Singaporean and Malaysian technology, and steel fibre, the distance between two piers can be increased to up to 120 metres, which can reduce costs by 40 per cent. Recently, the ministry published the National Highway Precast Concrete Policy, mandating the use of a minimum of 25 per cent precast components in national highway projects. These sustainable materials will re­duce costs and improve the quality of construction, lower the carbon footprint and ensure the longevity of highway infrastructure.

What are some of the initiatives that have been taken for the adoption of new technologies and efficient construction techniq­u­es/ practices?

The ministry has been promoting state-of-the-art practices in project preparation and construction supervision. These include the use of light detection and ranging technology, network survey vehicles and ground penetration radars. Practices such as bridge health monitoring and the use of road asset management systems and bridge management systems are also be­ing scaled up. Concessionaires and contracto­rs are given the option in their agreement to use innovative materials and technologies of the­ir choice in construction and maintenance. The decision of using the appropriate material/technology rests with the contractor.

There will be no revision in contract prices or transfer of cost reduction benefits to NHAI. Stretches using material/technology for which codes, standards, specifications, guidelines, etc. are available under the Indian Roads Cong­ress, MoRTH, American Association of State Hi­gh­way and Transportation Officials, ASTM Inter­national, the Eurocodes and the British Stan­dard Codes will have a defects liability period (DLP) equal to that for conventional pavemen­ts. Stretches using new material/technology, for which codes, standards, spe­cifi­ca­tions, guidelines, etc. are not available, projects may be taken up on a pilot basis, and the DLP of such projects shall be 10 years. No separate app­roval from NHAI is required for using new/alternative material/technology within the contract provisions. Usage in Indian conditions shall not be insisted on by an authority/indepe­n­dent en­gi­neer for any particular mate­ri­al/ technology if certification by owners of similar projects regar­ding the continued successful performance of such materials is confirmed.

What steps have been taken for the promotion of alternative fuels for road transport?

MoRTH has formulated policies and a roadmap to ensure reduction in greenhouse gas emissi­ons. Also, being a regulatory body, it has notified various standards and non-fiscal incentives to facilitate the adoption of green mobility in the country. The adoption of alternative fuels is one of the major objectives of the ministry, not only to curb emission levels from road tra­ns­­port, but also to reduce the dependence on oil imports. MoRTH has released timely notifications to promote the adoption of alternative fuels and vehicles powered by these fuels.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are expected to play a key role in reducing carbon emissions, and MoRTH is undertaking several initiatives to promote the widespread use of such vehicles. Etha­nol will not only help reduce vehicular pollution, but will also help boost the agricultural sector. India aims to achieve 20 per cent etha­nol blending by 2025. Hydrogen fuel cell EVs do not produce any tail pipe emissions, ma­king hydrogen a clean transport fuel. Further, if hy­dro­­gen is produced using a renewable source of en­ergy, it will have a minimal carbon footprint. MoRTH has notified hydrogen-enriched com­pre­ssed natural gas (CNG) as an automotive fuel, allowing the addition of hydrogen (18 per cent) to CNG. By notifying BS-VI and other such norms, MoRTH is ensuring that In­dia’s em­ission standards are on par with global emiss­ion standards, with the aim of bringing down tail pipe emissions from vehicles.

What are the specific measures being considered to address the unresolved issues in the sector?

Multiple initiatives have been undertaken to address unresolved issues, such as:

  • Ensuring possession of land and receipt of all clearances before starting construction to prevent delays in execution.
  • Conducting frequent progress reviews with concerned stakeholders (at senior levels) and state governments to ensure quick resolution of pending issues.
  • Adopting various policies and reforms to improve the cash flow of contractors.
  •  Amending the bidding criteria through ad­just­ment of the financial capacity of bidders of HAM projects, to account for other projects being undertaken.
  • Benchmarking operations and maintenance costs as a percentage of bid project costs.
  • Defining right of way for HAM in line with its definition for EPC.
  • Providing lenders access to the Program Ma­na­gement Information System database.
  • Accepting surety bonds issued by insuran­ce firms as substitutes for bank guarantees.

What are the top three priorities of the ministry for the next two years? What are the key opportunities?

The top three priorities are completion of ma­jor expressway projects (Delhi-Mumbai, Del­hi-De­hradun, Delhi-Katra, Delhi-Jaipur, Del­hi-Chan­digarh and Chennai-Bengaluru), reduction of ro­ad accident deaths by 50 per cent, and de­ve­lopment of a highway network spanning 200,000 km.

Some of the key opportunities include the development of 35 multimodal logistics parks; de­velopment of ropeways, cable cars and funicular rail; and monetisation of 27,000 km of highways.

What are the road construction targets for the future?

In 2022-23, the ministry aims to award 12,000 km of projects, as well as construct pro­jects with a cumulative length of 12,000 km. Under the BharatmalaPariyojana, MoRTH has envisioned the development of a total of 65,000 km of highways across the country. India will have a highway network spanning 200,000 km by 2024.