The Shimla-Mataur highway, one of Himachal Pradesh’s primary national highways set for four-laning, was recently declared unviable by the central government. A look at why the road is important for the state, and what the latest development means:
The Shimla-Mataur highway
The Shimla-Mataur highway is a national highway that runs northwest from Shimla for around 223 kilometres, passing through the districts of Solan, Bilaspur and Hamirpur before ending at the Mataur junction in Kangra district, around 13 kilometres away from Dharamshala.
Why is it important?
The highway connects the state capital Shimla to Kangra, the state’s most populated district and home to Himachal’s second capital Dharamshala. Kangra, Bilaspur and Hamirpur fall in a region commonly called lower Himachal, primarily connected to Shimla via this highway.
Besides the districts directly connected, the highway also facilitates indirect linking of Shimla with parts of Mandi, Kullu, Una and Chamba districts – in effect, it connects Shimla with 9 out of 12 districts in the state. It’s important from the point of view of religious tourism too, since it provides connectivity to some major pilgrimage centres and popular temples in lower Himachal.
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What is the history and status of the road-widening project?
In June 2016, Union minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari announced that the highway would be four-laned. In addition, the NHAI was to build tunnels and bridges along the route and bypass some towns, to reduce the distance and travel-time.
The road was to be widened in five different ‘packages’, or sections, and the NHAI hired M/s Inter Continental Consultants and Technocrats, New Delhi, to prepare detailed project reports (DPRs) for this.
Delays in the DPR process caused the High Court of Himachal Pradesh to intervene in the matter in 2017 on its own motion in public interest. The HC last year directed NHAI and other agencies involved to ensure expeditious completion of works. In his budget speech earlier this year, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur mentioned the highway as a priority project for the state.
The final DPR is now complete, an NHAI official told The Indian Express, and the land acquisition process is underway. Last week, Thakur told the state legislative Assembly that for Package V of the highway, a 36-kilometre stretch from Kangra to Jwalamukhi, around 66 hectares of land have already been acquired by the Centre.
However, no construction/excavation work has begun yet.
When was it declared unviable?
On July 3 this year, the Union ministry of road transport and highways wrote to NHAI regarding the unviability of 2,887 kilometres of highways in the country, which included the Shimla-Mataur highway.
The NHAI then asked the ministry to transfer the development, maintenance and repair of the road to the state public works department.
Thakur told the Assembly that the communication between the ministry and the NHAI was regarding viability of various projects according to market borrowings, so that planning could be done for them according to the ministry’s annual budget.
According to an NHAI official, the projected cost of the road-widening is Rs 10,000 crore, of which Rs 7,000 crore is the project cost and Rs 3,000 crore the land acquisition cost. The financial crisis caused by the Covid pandemic was one of the factors behind the project being declared unviable, the official said.
So, is the four-laning cancelled?
The CM said he reached out to Gadkari following the development, after which the ministry asked the NHAI to continue to repair, develop and maintain the road instead of handing it to the state.
“The state is committed towards the four-laning of this highway, and the matter is being raised with the Centre regularly,” Thakur said in the Assembly. He added that the government would try to get it done through the NHAI or through a Build Operate Transfer (BOT)/Hybrid Annuity Model (HAM)/Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contract under the budgetary provisions of the Union ministry.
About the communication regarding the “unviability” of the project, he said: “Letters keep getting posted but are not the final word.”
The Opposition Congress, however, is skeptical. Opposition leader Mukesh Agnihotri said during the Assembly session that Gadkari announced road projects worth Rs 65,000 crore in the past, but little has been done on the ground. He alleged that the road-widening of the Pathankot-Mandi highway also stands threatened, as a 40-kilometre stretch of the highway was included in the list of unviable projects.