Interview with Santosh Kumar Yadav: “Highway infrastructure is a key enabler of economic and social growth”

Santosh Kumar Yadav, Chairman, National Highways Authority of India

The road sector has always been a high-priority area for the government given its potential to stimulate the economy. While there have been various roadblocks to growth, project awards and implementation have picked up of late, as has investor interest. In an interview with Indian Infrastructure, Santosh Kumar Yadav, Chairman, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), talks about the sector’s growth, NHAI’s focus areas and initiatives and future targets. Excerpts…

How has the growth of the road sector impacted the economy? What have been NHAI’s noteworthy initiatives and achievements?

Highway infrastructure is a key enabler of the economic and social growth of the country. Investment in highway infrastructure has a direct multiplier effect of 1.5 times on the economy. India currently has a national highway length of about 146,145 km.  As per NITI Aayog, the road sector caters to around 70 per cent of the freight movement. NHAI is developing national highway infrastructure in line with the ex­pected growth in road freight. Its projects have contributed to the growth of the local economy. For ins­tance, a study conducted by World Bank rese­archers on the impact of the Golden Quadrila­teral (GQ) project on the performance of organised manufacturing showed that 40 per cent of the economic growth in districts near the GQ could be attributed directly to its development. Notably,  such growth was not witnessed in districts away from the GQ. Impro­ve­ment in the national highway framework has also helped improve India’s ranking on the Logistics Per­for­mance Index from 44 in 2018 to 38 in 2023.

How has the progress been under the Bharatmala Pariyojana?

About 34,800 km of national highways are being developed under the Bharatmala Pariyojana, of which 26,674 km has been awarded and 14,283 km has be­en constructed as of July 31, 2023. The primary objective is to optimise the efficiency of goods and people movement across the country through corridor-based infrastructure development. The programme aims to double the overall freight movement speed from 40 km per hour to 80 km per hour along high-frequency corridors and connect around 550 districts. It will also double the share of freight plying through national highways from 40 per cent to 80 per cent.

“NHAI’s key focus will remain awarding around 6,000 km of national highway network in 2023-24.”

What is the progress in expressway and high speed corridor development? What are the future targets?

NHAI is developing 27 expressways and access-controlled corridors spanning 9,860 km across the country. It comprises flagship projects such as the 1,386 km long Delhi-Mumbai Expressway, the 669 km long Delhi-Katra Expressway and the 917 km long Amrit­sar-Bathinda-Jamnagar Economic Corridor. These corridors will reduce the travel distance between origin-destination pairs by around 13 per cent.

As of July 2023, projects of 7,213 km length have been awarded for construction, of which construction has been completed for a length of 3,192 km. The 246 km long Delhi-Dausa-Lalsot section of the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway and the 502 km long six-lane Rajasthan section of the Amritsar-Jamnagar Econo­mic Corridor were commissioned in February and July 2023 respectively. Further, the 313 km long Ambala-Kotputli corridor has been opened to traffic.

What measures are being taken to enhance road safety?

NHAI has been conducting safety audits on the national highways at all stages, from planning and co­nstru­c­tion to O&M. Accident-prone spots are being rectified through the installation of pedestrian facilities such as zebra crossings, advance warning signs, crash barriers and railings, solar lights/blinkers and road signages. Junction improvements and traffic-calming measures are also being undertaken. Other measures in­clu­de sa­fe crossing facilities such as foot over br­i­d­ges, pedestrian subways, and pedestrian and vehicular underpasses. Advan­c­ed traffic ma­­­nagement systems (ATMSs) have been in­s­talled on the national highway network to regula­te traffic flow and notify the authorities for immediate action in case of a highway incident. NHAI is also working on capacity building of engineers by imparting  road safety audit training at premier institutes. NHAI also provides incident management support to national highway users. It has dep­loy­ed over 900 ambulances at gaps of 50 km or at toll plazas on national highways. It also has a 24×7 toll-free helpline number, with a chatbot to assist users in emergency/non-emergency situations.

How are digital solutions and technologies assisting in highway operations and services?

Technology and digital solutions are transforming the entire life cycle of national highways. NHAI has deployed advanced technologies such as LiDAR for topographical surveys, ground-penetrating radars for subsurface mapping, GIS for asset location mapping and drones for verification of site conditions. In the operations and services phase, network survey vehicles are being used for automated and accurate data capturing to monitor pavement quality. Recently, NHAI also la­unched two mobile applications to enhance efficiency and provide ease of commuting on na­tional highways. The citizen-centric mobile app, Ra­jmargYatra, features an inbuilt complaint re­d­ressal system while the NHAI One mobile app fa­cilitates crucial on-site requirements in project execution. The authority is also leveraging ATMS and electronic toll collection to enable faster toll collection and an uninterrupted travel experience. With ETC, the average waiting time at toll-fee plazas has reduced to around 45 seconds from 480 seconds in 2019.

What steps has NHAI taken to attract private investments?

NHAI is progressing strongly on raising reso­urces through asset monetisation. To attract private investments, the model concession agreements for hybrid annuity model (HAM) and build-operate-transfer (BOT) (toll) projects have been revi­sed to optimise the risk-reward between NHAI and the concessionaire. Of the 6,000 km awarded by NHAI in 2022-23, about 60 per cent length has been awarded under HAM.

NHAI monetises its assets under three different modes – toll-operate-transfer (TOT), infra­s­tructure investment trusts (InvITs) and project-based financing. The TOT model was initiated in 2017-18, and an amount of Rs 263.66 billion has been raised through the monetisation of ab­out 1,615 km of national highways over the past five years till March 2023. As for InvITs, till March 2023, Rs 102 billion has been raised in two pha­s­es, for a total corridor length of 635 km. Me­a­n­while, NHAI has floated a corridor-specific SPV that allows investors to finance large-scale road projects during the construction phase. Till Mar­ch 2023, Rs 335.61 billion has been raised thro­ugh the SPV for the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway.

What measures are being taken to decarbonise the sector and adopt green practices?

NHAI’s pursuit of environmental sustainability is in line with the Green Highways (Plantation, Tra­ns­plantation, Beautification & Maintenan­ce)  Policy, 2015, which aims to promote con­ser­­va­tion of the environment through the greening of highway corridors. By building eco-friendly highways, NHAI will also contribute to the nationally de­termined contributions committed by India un­der the Paris Agreement.

To negate the harmful impact on the environment and reduce its carbon footprint, NHAI is encouraging the innovative use of waste materials such as plastic waste, fly ash, phosphor-gypsum and steel slag to achieve a circular economy. NHAI is also engaging different stakeholders for plantations along national highways. In the last five years, over 35 million plants have been planted along the national highways and about 64,000 trees have been transplanted across the country. Further, 24.5 million trees along national highways have been geotagged through NHAI’s Harit Path GPS-based application. Monitoring of tree plantations is also being done through drone videography.

NHAI is also developing innovative structures and features to conserve the environment and wildlife. For instance, on the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway, three animal underpasses and five overpasses with a combined length of 7 km have been dedicated for unencumbered wildlife movement. Iconic eight-lane tunnels are being built for the first time in India, with a length of over 4 km each, to reduce the impact on the wildlife in the region. Two tunnels are also being built across the Mukhundra sanctuary and the Matheran eco-sensitive zone. Additionally, wa­ter harvesting stations are being set up every 500 metres along the greenfield corridors to ensure that water tables are recharged.

What will be NHAI’s key focus areas and top priorities?

NHAI’s key focus will remain awarding around 6,000 km of national highway network in 2023-24. Meanwhile, NHAI is also strengthening the country’s logistics infrastructure by developing 35 multimodal logistics parks through its SPV, the National Highways Logistics Management Limited. In November 2022, the first MMLP project, spread across 184.27 acres of land at Mappedu in Chennai, was awarded. Thereafter, the MMLPs at Indore near Pithampur and at Bengaluru near Dabbaspet were awarded.

NHAI is also implementing the Parvatmala Pariyojana, which aims to develop ropeways to improve accessibility and convenience for passengers. In addition to hilly areas, ropeways are being developed in congested urban areas as an alternative mode of transportation. NHAI plans to award 27 ropeway projects in 2023-24. In March 2023, the foundation stone for India’s first urban ropeway project was laid in Varanasi. Meanwhile, bids have been received for three ropeway projects in Kedarnath, Hemkund Sahib Ji and Bijli Mahadev temple. Further, bids have been invited for ropeway projects in Brahmagiri to Anjaneri, Tikitoriya, Dhosi Hill and Prayagraj.

What, according to you, are the biggest challenges facing road development in India?

Land acquisition has been a challenge in na­tional highway development and poses a hindrance to fast execution of projects. Another ch­a­llenge is the long approval time for forest clearances. Support from various state governments and departments in addressing these issues will help in faster implementation of projects.