Major Strides: Encouraging progress in road construction and connectivity

The road sector is the cornerstone of In­dia’s overall infrastructure industry. In the past decade, the country has made significant strides in road construction and its extensive road network is the second largest in the world, surpassed only by that of the US. In fact, its pace of road construction is faster than that of most other countries.

Proactive approach

The government is implementing measures to keep up with the rapid pace of change to promote both economic growth and environmental sustainability. In order to expedite project construction and foster sectoral viability, it is crucial to overcome challenges such as land acquisition, en­vironmental and forest clearances, and regulatory approvals. In light of this, the National Hi­gh­ways Authority of India (NHAI), National High­ways and Infrastructure Develop­ment Corpora­tion Limited and other nodal agencies have taken measures to ensure that cons­truction does not begin until a significant am­ou­nt of time and effort has been devoted to the pre-construction stage for clearances and other preparatory works.

Additionally, prior to commencing a project, extensive research is being conducted on wetlands, forests, restricted areas, and undergrou­nd spots that may contain gas, water or petroleum pipelines. The agencies aim to further im­prove their preparedness for challenges that may arise during project implementation.

Establishing a balance between road deve­lopment and environmental conservation is crucial to ensure a smaller carbon footprint for the sector. The central government has been ma­­­king efforts to reduce fuel consumption, pa­r­­ticularly diesel usage, throughout project im­­plementation. Solar power plants of 3 MW ca­pa­city are being installed at construction si­tes so as to transfer the generated power to an electricity grid, from where it can be drawn as per requirement.

The practice of reusing materials is being encouraged in road construction projects. Ev­ery last bit of asphalt is being utilised so as to limit bitumen extraction and prevent environ­me­ntal degradation. A new technology is being used for this purpose. Earlier, asphalt used to be add­ed to the hot-mix plant. Now it is being ad­ded to the cold-mix plant.

Currently, at an under-construction road project near Delhi, around 120 km of the road is being built using reclaimed asphalt.

Pain points

The raw materials used in road construction have been experiencing recurring cost hikes. The costs of essential resources, such as steel and cement, have also seen an upward trend.

The projects under NHAI and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) are subject to escalation clauses, resulting in 75-80 per cent reimbursement of material costs on a per project basis. However, the absence of these clauses in both Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM)-funded and privately funded road projects poses a challenge.

The settlement of disputes among various stakeholders is another bottleneck. During 2020-21, NHAI resolved and settled around 40 per cent of the claims. The conciliation process pro­ved to be a good solution as it resulted in the acceptance of arbitration awards and quic­ker dispute resolution. Moreover, it demons­tra­t­ed a success rate of over 90 per cent. How­ev­er, the process has slowed down with many au­thorities challenging each order passed in arbitration against them, although, as per industry ex­perts, resurgence is likely.

Key recommendations

So far, overall sector progress has been encouraging. In addition to this, the Bharat­ma­laPari­yojana, a comprehensive programme of the central government for corridor-based highway de­velopment, has made significant headway.

State governments have a major stake in road projects. States such as Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra have taken multiple initiatives, along with setting ambitious targets. While many states are executing small-scale road construction programmes, a few are yet to catch up.

Some states have exhibited a low level of participation in collective decision-making via Gati Shakti, a digital platform designed to str­ea­mline project approvals across multiple mini­s­tries. This is due to the state governments’ si­mul­taneous engagement in various projects. However, their involvement is imperative and str­ongly recommended. The process of acquiring land for road projects can be intricate. Delays in approvals and hindrances in project timelines are also often linked to this. With the launch of the Bhoomi Rashi portal, the entire process of land acquisition has been digitalised.  Although there has been some breakthrough in terms of interministerial coordination, as the implementation of a railway crossing in a road project is now executed with collective efforts, enhanced synchronisation among all ministries is needed.

The shortage of designers, supervisors and labour is a key concern within the infrastructure sector. Technical expertise and project management skills are necessary to develop a proficient workforce. For this, government intervention and collaboration with state governments is necessary to set up skill learning institutes.

Building information modelling (BIM) technology is used to create a three-dimensional virtual model of a project and minimise the scope for errors and iterations. NITI Aayog plans to ma­n­date the implementation of this technology for road construction projects that meet a certain size criterion. Integrating all aspects of a project onto a single platform, using BIM, starting from the design phase, can be beneficial. However, be­fore this can be done, it is necessary for all sta­keholders, including designers, to im­pro­ve the software, as well as the skill set of professi­o­nals handling the software. Thus, a mandate for skill development is necessary, with a focus on developing proficiency in BIM usage.

Past trends have shown policy fluctuations in the road sector, such as the varying pri­ces of minor minerals and the royalties im­po­sed by state governments – for five consecutive years, NHAI, along with other implementing agencies, advocated the use of rigid pavement in projects. However, due to a sudden change in policy, flexible pavements made a comeba­ck. All in all, there is a need for greater stability with regard to policy.

A minimum of 25 per cent fly ash is being utilised in every cubic metre of concrete being constructed. The cost effectiveness of ground granulated blast-furnace slag (GGBS) is suboptimal. Hence, there are limitations to this and the deployment is minimal. Additionally, construction codes prohibit the use of GGBS after a particular percentage is achieved. Therefore, it is recommended to approach the ministries to enquire about the possibility of increasing this.

The government has been prioritising the integration of innovative technologies in the sector. Steps are being taken to improve road safety, including the development of a sleep detection mechanism and incorporation of incident management services for national highways.

The efficacy of road development hinges on prioritising integrated planning. There nee­ds to be effective coordination while considering environmental impacts. To this extent, the ministry must establish a shared online database with constant updates on environmental information, accessible to all users.

Based on a panel discussion among

R.K. Bansal, Executive Vice-President & Head, Roads & Bridges Business, L&T Construction; Rakesh Prakash Singh, S.E.(Civil), Highway Administration, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways; and Parul Verma, Partner, Kochhar & Company, at India Infrastructure Forum 2023