Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s flagship infrastructure project, the Rs 46,000-crore Nagpur-Mumbai Super Communication Expressway, has landed in a fresh controversy. At a time when a section of farmers affected by the project are putting up stiff resistance, two leading organisations in the construction industry have objected to the bidding process to award contracts to build the 701-km road corridor.
The National Highway Builders Federation (NHBF) and the Construction Federation of India (CFI) have complained to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office objecting to certain provisions in the request for qualification (RFQ) document for the project. They have alleged that these provisions were tailored to favour a handful of players, and sought the PMO’s intervention. Both outfits also approached the CMO too in this regard.
With Fadnavis keen to complete the project before October 1, 2019, nodal agency Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) has split the road construction work into 16 packages, totalling Rs 27,650 crore. In their representation, both the industry bodies have alleged that “there was an intentional and premeditated design to suppress competitiveness in the bidding process”.
The bone of contention is that when the MSRDC first published the RFQ for the projects on January 2, 2017, the contentious clauses for qualifying bidders were not a part of the document. About 40 players submitted their expressions of interest. On March 29, 2017, the penultimate date for the bid, this RFQ was annulled and a fresh document was published, with the new clauses.
One new condition for qualification pertained to experience in building “access-controlled” expressways, freeways, motorways, and autobahns worth Rs 500 crore to Rs 1,300 crore in the last five years. Pointing out that only three “access-controlled” expressway projects — the Delhi-Agra expressway, the Agra-Lucknow expressway, and the Yamuna expressway — have been completed in the country in the past five years, the NBHF has alleged that the “restrictive” clause would allow qualification of only a handful of companies, leading to limited competition. “Highway contractors are competent enough to construct access-control highways since the latter contains only two additional components when compared to national highway projects, which is barrier fencing and signal-free interchanges,” wrote P C Grover, Director, NBHF.
The CFI’s letter to the PMO shared that opinion. “We have reviewed the re-invited RFQ documents and have noticed some glaring provisions, which are normally not a part of the model engineering, procurement and construction document issued by NITI Aayog or norms used by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways or other agencies involved in the implementation of transportation infrastructure projects,” wrote Rajeev Sharma, Deputy Director, CFI, in the submission shared with the PMO and the CMO.
Fadnavis, when contacted by The Indian Express, said he was not aware about the objections raised. “The bidding criteria are not decided at the government level. The MSRDC can throw light on these. But if I receive any memorandum in this regard, I’ll surely look into the merits of the case,” he said.
However, official correspondence dated April 7, 2017 from MSRDC Vice-Chairman and Managing Director Radheshyam Mopalwar to Principal Secretary, Public Works Department, Ashish Kumar Singh indicates that the provisions, now contested, were incorporated in the RFQ on directives issued by the state government on March 10. Also, the minutes of a March 7 meeting convened by Fadnavis show that the bid document and submissions from interested parties were discussed at that meeting.
The minutes, a copy of which is with The Indian Express, show the decision on incorporating at least one of the contentious clauses was taken at the same meeting, following the CM’s missive that the selected contractors must be “technically and financially competent”.
Mopalwar’s communication to the government on April 7 also says there are 35 contractors who can work on highway projects in the country “but only seven are involved in construction of access controlled highways”. “The MSRDC is of the opinion that it would be appropriate to include those who have built four and six lane roads in the qualification criterion to enhance competitiveness of the bidding process,” said the letter. It adds that a large number of queries and objections were raised in this regard during a pre-bid conference on April 17.
In the event of a joint venture involving a foreign partner, the MSRDC, on May 16, also added one more qualifying clause — that the experience of a foreign partner of building access-controlled roads would be considered only if it was outside his country of origin. This clause has also been objected to by the industry bodies.
The reissued RFQ document also stipulated disqualification of companies under corporate debt restructuring (CDR) or strategic debt restructuring (SDR). Grover said: “The Centre has issued specific directives that companies under CDR/SDR should not be barred by central or state agencies from bidding. Yet, this clause has been introduced.” At least 14 highway builders and contractors figure on the list of those who would be disqualified by this clause.
While the MSRDC has now written to the state government for taking a further call on these conditions, Mopalwar said: “The conditions were incorporated to ring fence the government’s requirement to build the specialised expressway in a time-bound fashion.
It followed a review of technical and financial capabilities of those interested in bidding for the project. The government cannot afford delays on account of financial troubles of the contractors. Let us wait for the response the RFQ receives. We can always revisit a condition if the competition is found inadequate.” For now, the due date for the bidding has been extended to May 31.