In October 2017, the Cabinet note that contained the proposal to roll out Bharatmala, the Narendra Modi government’s mega push to build highways worth Rs 7 lakh crore, cited the Golden Quadrilateral, the country’s first nationwide central project to build a network of four-lane highways linking the four big cities of India, to explain its importance.
The Golden Quadrilateral or “GQ” was former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first dream project and is enshrined as the biggest infrastructure intervention in the roadways sector in post-Independent India, making 5,846 km of highways with the start of the first phase of the National Highways Development Project (NHDP).
The project mechanism approved by the Cabinet in Bharatmala is in many ways a tribute to the GQ mode of doing things. It empowers the board of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to accept and execute an assembly of projects under the umbrella of the larger approved plan, sources said.
“Atalji used to say ‘humaare desh mein sadkon mein gaddhe hain ya gaddhon mein sadke hain?’ (Does our country have potholes on roads or roads in potholes?),” recalled L K Joshi, who was Member, NHAI, during this time and later became Secretary, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. “So the first chance he got, he sanctioned GQ, his greatest contribution to infrastructure in India.”
Within months of assuming charge as Prime Minister in 1999, Vajpayee called a meeting in the PMO to direct the Road Transport Ministry to map out “20 most congested areas of India” and make a plan to create four-lane highways to ease congestion, officials recalled. What emerged was the grand design to connect Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai for seamless movement of freight. The work started in less than a year.
To fund the grand project, Vajpayee recast the Central Road Fund, a fund traditionally made out of cess on the sale of petrol and diesel. Eventually, the complete GQ with not just north-south and east-west corridors but the diagonal arms through the first two phases of NHDP cost Rs 64,639 crore. The original plan of the GQ stood completed by 2012.
While the current regime has institutionalised the platform of Pragati, wherein the PM takes stock of all infrastructure projects to remove bottlenecks, the Vajpayee government had similar system for the GQ project. Officials recall that every time NHAI faced challenges, all they had to do was inform Khanduri, the minister, who was instructed to bring the matter to Vajpayee’s notice. “The pace of work was such that 90 per cent of the original GQ plan was implemented within four years,” said a senior ministry official.
The GQ brought in many firsts for India’s highways sector. It laid roads with Hot Mix Plants for bitumen for the first time; medians were introduced as a matter of design, safety features like guardrails were incorporated; and the process included bringing consultants from outside for engineering solutions. An equally significant contribution of his in bolstering the country’s infrastructure is the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), a project to construct all-weather rural road connectivity, launched in 2000. On date it has been able to cover more than 80 per cent of its original target.