Hit hard by the pandemic and the lockdown, the highways construction sector is back in business, racing to achieve its targets as the government identifies infrastructure works like building roads, as one of the areas for post-Covid recovery of the economy. The National Highways Authority of India, at the forefront of that exercise, courted controversy recently when Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari took a dig at it publicly for taking 12 years to construct its own office building. He said the organisation has officers who are non-performers and stall decision-making. NHAI Chairman Sukhbir Singh Sandhu tells The Indian Express that COVID has made the organisation more aggressive in pushing targets; works worth Rs 2 lakh crore will be awarded this fiscal, and that NHAI is in the process of identifying and weeding out non-performers who delay works. Edited excerpts:
Where do you find yourself in the post-Covid world considering the government has emphasised highway construction as one of the means to economic recovery?
Our award of contracts is almost 60 per cent higher compared to last year in the same period. It is the highest ever. When these works start on the ground there will be a lot of employment generation, economic activity. It will help the economy to come out of the bad patch. By this financial year we will award worth Rs 2 lakh crore, which is the highest ever. Partly it was our target but because of Covid, I would say, we had to become more aggressive with more intensive monitoring.
What kind of issues did you face during and after the lockdown at your construction sites?
Frankly, we were down only for the first three weeks of lockdown since March. We have been working continuously since then. The contractors took some time. In certain areas there was not much of a problem. In some areas labour had not gone back; where the contractor gave them food and shelter, like they were in camps, but complying with the guidelines. So they started work immediately after the lockdown was lifted. In some cases, yes, the labour had gone back. But they also started coming back in a few weeks’ time. And many contractors sent their vehicles to Bihar, Bengal and Odisha to get returned labour back. Because contractors realised that the cost they were incurring with the machinery remaining idle at sites was much higher than the cost of getting labourers back through own transport arrangements. So we were back at work almost immediately.
Did you also have to give a lot of concessions to contractors?
Yes. We have started the system of releasing payments monthly. Earlier it used to be stage-payments, wherein the release of money was linked to completion of a certain stage of the contract. That was only five times in a year. Now it has become monthly and that has increased liquidity of the contractors to a great extent. They are very happy.
Did you take their feedback?
Oh yes. We spoke to contractors. There were some 80 suggestions. We immediately agreed to 60 of them and issued orders on the same day.
Awarding of contracts is one thing, but what about your pace of construction and completion of projects?
That way we are slightly shorter than last year because for two months the work had to be stopped before it picked up gradually. The lockdown was in April and May. These two months are equivalent to getting four months’ worth of work done. The construction speed is the highest in these months because monsoon comes right after that so the work is usually expedited before that. And in winter also we do not construct as fast. But we are recovering very fast and hopefully by the end of March 31, we will be able to complete our target.
And the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway being your flagship project, is there any impact on that?
Not much. Maybe a month or two in terms of timeline. It is the biggest ever project, and the speed of its construction is not something seen in India. Our neighbouring country (China) is known for constructing roads with that good a speed. Rs 86,000 crore worth of a project completing in three years is a big deal.
How are you executing it differently from other projects?
We have divided the project into 44 packages. Most of them stand awarded. So instead of monitoring from one side, we are monitoring 44 different packages simultaneously. That has resulted in good speed. Also there is a dedicated land acquisition team and around 90 per cent of the land required is with us. Being a flagship program everything is being monitored very closely. I monitor is sometimes weekly and sometimes fortnightly. Any issue crops up with states, we speak to the chief secretaries and other officials. There us record-setting progress in this. So, by December 2023 it will be complete. Stretches like Delhi to Jaipur will be open even before that. Without any break, you remain at a speed of 120 kmph and reach your destination in no time.
How different or world class is the experience going to be for consumers?
Building modern, world class wayside amenities is part of the contract. Because it is a greenfield project, there are no facilities or shops along the way, and you can’t have access. So you will have petrol pumps, good restaurants, motels, hotels, separate parking for commercial and private vehicles, electric charging stations etc.
And the use of FASTags in it?
We want all vehicle-related payments like parking, filling up of petrol, diesel to be enabled by FASTags but it will be the customer’s choice. The option will be there. We don’t want to impose anything. But of course from January 1, FASTags will be mandatory in all toll plazas.
The traffic and earnings projection with which your huge kitty of work is created, would you say the projection is accurate?
By and large we have got what we projected. Around 10 per cent plus-minus happens everywhere. You can never be so accurate. That is why we have 14 lakh crore worth of project in the pipeline. We are raising funds based on that. From where will we repay? Only from toll. We are securitizing the toll… raising money for 10-20 years, from bonds, banks and other sources. So when they see our future revenue projection, they are very happy. The foreign investors, like pension funds, etc, they are all investing in the roads sector because it has a very robust repayment mechanism with a stabilized toll policy for many years now. Now they don’t have any risks. Like in power sector they have burnt their fingers. Many power plants are sitting idle with no demand. There’s no such thing in roads. So whosoever has invested toll-operate-transfer etc is happy. Whatever they had imagined, they are perhaps getting back extra.
Despite all this performance, NHAI has faced criticism from the minister himself that people in this organisation do not have the mindset to take decisions on time and fast-track file work. How have you addressed that issue?
I will not like to comment on the minister’s statement per se. On the subject, I can say that in every organization there are people who are very good people, mediocre and then there are less than good performers. But in this organization the percentage of non-performers is much less. Secondly, the issue was about construction of our new office building. NHAI does not have the expertise to construct buildings. We are setting world record of roads constructed per day because that is our expertise. This building’s contract should have been given to NBCC or CPWD, as they are experts in making buildings. Because in road projects if there are 10-15 items, in building projects there are more than 1000 items. So that was a wrong decision at that time. If it was given to say NBCC, they would have constructed the building in two years.
Have you created any structure to weed out non-performers?
Yes, the government policy is there to take action and compulsorily retire such people. We will also be using that provision. The process to identify is on. It has to be a justifiable order or else they will get a stay order from the courts. So it has to be very well-reasoned out. Our own cadre is very small. Most of the people are on deputation. (If) We find they are not worthwhile, we send them back. In our own cadre, we have toppers from GATE exam, where we have topper from IIT and all. They are excellent.
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