NHAI Chief: NHAI will award 5,500 km by end of March 2022
In the current financial year till February end 2022, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI)has awarded projects for 3,443km, which is higher than the 2,827 km of projects awarded in the same period during FY2020-21. The awarded length was the highest in the past three years, compared to 3,211 km in 2019-20 and 2,222 km in 2018-19. The authority awarded 4,788 km in 2020-21, and is expected to award 5,500 km by the end of March 2022. As part of a major bureaucratic reshuffle, Alka Upadhyaya – a 1990 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre – was appointed Chairperson of NHAI. In this exclusive interview with the CW team, she shares insights on achieving NHAI’s set targets, key upcoming projects, vision for funding future projects, non-performing highways, and much more.
In the current financial year till February end 2022, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI)has awarded projects for 3,443km, which is higher than the 2,827 km of projects awarded in the same period during FY2020-21. The awarded length was the highest in the past three years, compared to 3,211 km in 2019-20 and 2,222 km in 2018-19. The authority awarded 4,788 km in 2020-21, and is expected to award 5,500 km by the end of March 2022. As part of a major bureaucratic reshuffle, Alka Upadhyaya – a 1990 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre – was appointed Chairperson of NHAI. In this exclusive interview with the CW team, she shares insights on achieving NHAI’s set targets, key upcoming projects, vision for funding future projects, non-performing highways, and much more.Given that the Government has indicated the need to step up construction to 50 km per day, how will the targets be achieved?Despite losing the best construction months due to the COVID-19 related lockdown, the authority in 2020-21 constructed 4,218 km of National Highways (NH). This is the highest ever highway construction achieved in a financial year by NHAI. At 4,218 km, the pace of construction increased by 5 per cent in 2020-21 compared to the 3,979 km constructed in 2019-20 and was 24 per cent more than the 3,264 km constructed in 2018-19. Till December 2021, we were neck to neck with what we achieved last year.We have successfully overcome the challenges during the pandemic and related situation in the past two years. With several relaxations, some comfort has been given to the development partners. However, like last year, we are fully committed to completing our projects in a timebound manner with least impact from COVID-19 and the subsequent situation.NHAI is adopting new methodologies, technologies and materials in road construction; what change would you identify as the most radical?We have been laying special emphasis on the use of new material, technologies and methods of construction of road projects. Project provisions encourage the use of such new and alternative technologies and NHAI has been facilitating their use. An example of this is the world record creating feat for laying pavement of quality concrete (PQC) for a four-lane highway of 2,580 m length within 24 hours on the greenfield Delhi-Vadodara-Mumbai Expressway project. The construction was carried out by the world’s largest fully automatic ultra-modern concrete paver machine. Recently, NHAI created another record on Delhi - Vadodra Greenfield Expressway of laying 42,666 MT of Bituminous concrete over 50 km lane length of flexible pavement in just 100 hours.The use of cement treated base (CTB) and cement treated sub-base (CTSB) has been promoted, which would substantially reduce the cost of pavement construction and at the same time improve the life of pavements. Construction of recycled asphalt pavement (RAP) is being adopted in various projects, which will reduce the requirement of new bitumen and aggregate. Use of plastic waste for the construction of service roads has picked up in the past two years and NHAI has provided requisite comfort to contractors to promote its use. Use of fly ash in the construction of embankments has also facilitated its disposal from thermal power plants (TPPs) and NHAI is utilising more than 100 lakh metric tonne of fly ash every year on NH works.The authority has awarded research studies to various IITs and NITs to come up with innovative technologies that would help build environment-friendly and cheaper roads, with enhanced lifecycle.The use of the latest equipment to monitor the health of highways and pavements has been promoted by NHAI in the past three to four years. Carrying out road condition surveys using network survey vehicles (NSVs) has been made mandatory to ensure quality of construction. Monthly drone videos have also been made mandatory on NH projects to oversee the progress of works. A RAMS Cell has been set up for systematic storage and analysis of data. In the next phase of this data collection, NHAI looks to use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools for deep dive analysis and better project monitoring.Beyond this, NHAI has updated its quality control management to ensure strict and consistent adherence to the stipulated standards of construction. As part of routine quality checks, the authority has been carrying out regular inspections of projects. To reinforce the quality audit mechanism, periodic inspection of projects is being carried out by NHAI officers besides third-party inspections by engaging retired engineers.How is work on the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway progressing?The 1,350-km, eight-lane Delhi-Mumbai Greenfield Expressway will be the longest expressway in India, which will enhance the connectivity between India’s national capital, Delhi, and financial capital, Mumbai. Other than addressing congestion in one of the busiest and most industrialised corridors in the country, the expressway will enhance connectivity to smaller and growing economic hubs in the country such as Kota, Ujjain and Bharuch across the five states of Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. The project is progressing at a rapid pace in a timebound manner with least impact from COVID and the subsequent situation. It is in an advanced stage of construction and I am confident it will boost economic development along the stretch of this corridor.The Government has laid emphasis on highway construction as one of the means to aid economic recovery. Is this a major responsibility to shoulder?Economic growth is closely linked with the growth of NH infrastructure in the country. The Government has been encouraging and shown confidence in the roads sector. In addition, the Government has a vision that looks beyond just developing highways and includes the wholistic and integrated development of the infrastructure framework. An initiative such as PM Gati Shakti – the national masterplan for multimodal connectivity – brings together the infrastructure schemes of various ministries and state governments such as Bharatmala, Sagarmala, inland waterways, dry/land ports and UDAN to improve connectivity and make Indian businesses more competitive. The multimodal connectivity will provide integrated and seamless connectivity for movement of people, goods and services from one mode of transport to another. It will facilitate the last-mile connectivity of infrastructure and reduce travel time for people. We have aligned to this vision of multimodal connectivity as we believe this plan will bring holistic planning to promote a comprehensive and integrated multimodal national network of transportation and logistics to enhance ease of living and ease of doing business, minimise disruptions and expedite cost-efficient completion of works. Driven by various reforms suggested by the Ministry of Finance, we have been striving to get newer players and synergise capital in the market and bring in the expertise of old contractors and new players to improve the pace of infrastructure development.What are your biggest challenges?Timely land acquisition, forest clearances, working permissions and state support for projects are the biggest challenges. Land acquisition has been a major cause of delay of NH projects. Therefore, it was decided that no project shall be awarded unless minimum 80-90 per cent land is acquired for the project and the remaining is made available within the next six months. All the clearances for forest, wildlife or environment and estimates for utility shifting are also taken before we award the project. The Group of Infrastructure headed by the Honourable Minister has resolved several inter-ministerial issues. To resolve state-level issues, a system of regular monthly reviews and close monitoring of NH projects has been set up from January 2022 at the level of Secretary, PWDs; Chief Secretary, Chairperson, NHAI, and Secretary (RTH).To ensure speed in construction, quick and judicious decision-making at all levels of NHAI is critical. This will not only improve pace of completion but also reduce the lopsided claims made by contractors. For faster settlement of claims through conciliation and to reduce liabilities, NHAI has rigorously started the process of conciliation by constituting three Conciliation Committees of Independent Experts (CCIE) of three members each. These Conciliation Committees are being headed by retired officials from the judiciary and senior experts from public administration, finance and the private sector. In fact, we are asking all contractors and concessionaires to come for conciliation for faster settlement of claims.NHAI started the conciliation initiative in FY 2017-18; since then, 247 cases have been referred to CCIE. To date, 151 cases of claims by contractors and concessionaires worth Rs 37,575 crore have been successfully settled for an amount of Rs 12,730 crore. NHAI is working on a fast-track mode to resolve all the disputes through conciliation. The authority has launched a drive to bring maximum ongoing arbitration and court matters under the ambit of conciliation as well as to complete all ongoing CCIE matters in a timebound manner. During the current financial year 2021-22, we have settled 56 cases for Rs 3,739 crore against the claimed amount of Rs 13,418 crore.How would you deal with non-performing highways?On March 2021, the first-ever ratings for 18,668 km of completed four/six-lane NH stretches covering 343 toll plazas were released. The fundamental objective of highway rating was to achieve ‘minimum time with maximum safety in a stress-free environment’ from a highway user’s perspective. Using this rating mechanism, the highway administration assesses the reason for any inefficiency, safety issues, bottlenecks at toll plaza, requirement of widening and level/ quality of user services.This initiative has helped set standards for benchmarking and assessment of highway corridors in India. Further, this exercise has also helped increase the accountability of the stakeholders involved in development and maintenance of NHs and provide an opportunity to stakeholders to improve the parameters in which they lag behind.To deal with non-performers, SOPs have been issued by MoRTH in October 2021 for both contractors and consultants along with corresponding changes in the bidding documents. Site officers of NHAI are examining the performance of contractors and consultants against these SOPs and strict actions will be taken against non-performers.What is your vision for funding future projects?As part of the Bharatmala Pariyojana, 22 greenfield expressways and access-controlled corridors are being developed. Once completed, these are expected to be the next lifeline of growth for the country. Development of such large-scale infrastructure projects is capital-intensive and NHAI acknowledges the need for private-sector participation. It is important that asset recycling takes place to generate more funds for upcoming projects. Asset monetisation needs to be viewed not just as a funding mechanism but an overall strategy to bring about a paradigm shift in ushering in the latest technology for road maintenance. NHAI has been leveraging asset monetisation over the years through the BOT (Toll) system. To make the models more attractive to investors, we have amended model concession agreements for HAM and BOT (Toll) after multiple interactions with industry experts and stakeholders.NHAI’s fully-owned SPV, DME Developers (DMEL), has received AAA rating from CRISIL, CARE and India Ratings. DMEL has successfully raised Rs 9,731 crore in funding last fiscal. This year, NHAI has already raised Rs. 9,850 crores. With an asset base of 1.4 lakh km of NHs, our contribution to the National Monetisation Pipeline (NMP) announced by the Government of India is expected to be significant. To fulfil this objective, NHAI has launched ToT and InVIT for both institutional investors.The NHAI Infrastructure Investment Trust or InVIT is a first-of-a-kind platform to enable effective collaboration between the public and private sector. Through InVIT, the authority has opened private-sector participation for mutual funds, insurance companies and pension funds. Through the first tranche of InVIT, over Rs 8,000 crore has been raised for five projects of ~400 km. NHAI’s TOT has also received a positive response from the private sector. Through ToT, about Rs 17,000 crore has been successfully raised from both domestic and international investors. Going forward, through a mix of ToT and InvIT, NHAI will continue to monetise assets by offering attractive returns to retail and institutional investors.How would you like to transform NHAI?With the advent of PM Gati Shakti, the Government of India has shared its vision of holistic infrastructure development, enabling easier interconnectivity between road, rail, air and waterways. Keeping this in view, we need to focus on the development of allied highway initiatives like multimodal logistics parks and intermodal stations, besides development of NHs. In the recent Budget, there has been a discussion on the ‘Parvatmala Project’ – the national ropeway development project. We endeavour to take up these projects not only to enhance tourism but also to provide last-mile connectivity to areas where road connectivity is a challenge. NHAI is already working on a few ropeway projects in consultation with MoRTH.To strengthen the country’s logistics infrastructure, multimodal logistics parks (MMLPs) are being developed by NHAI through the National Highways Logistics Management (NHLML), a 100 per cent-owned SPV of NHAI. MMLPs have been conceptualised to be set up at strategic locations to enable efficient intermodal freight movement and formalise interface between logistics service providers, service users and regulators, thereby enhancing the efficiency of the Indian logistics sector. These parks will be developed across the country at 35 strategic locations to cater to over 50 per cent of the nation’s road freight movement. These locations have been identified as part of the Logistics Efficiency Enhancement Program (LEEP) study to efficiently cover the freight traffic in the country through an exhaustive framework based on freight flows, quality of road and rail connectivity and investment requirement.What would you say to women in the construction and building industry?The foremost vision would be to get more women leaders in the infrastructure sector. The Government of India aims to encourage women development and empowerment through its various initiatives such as the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme for protection and education of the girl child and Mahila Shakti Kendra (MSK) to empower rural women with opportunities for skill development and employment. As per the latest report of the Quarterly Employment Survey (QES) by the Ministry for Labour & Employment, the overall percentage of female workers stood at 32.1 per cent, higher than 29.3 per cent reported during the first round of QES. But there is still much work to be done to fully include and improve retention of women in the construction and building sector. Construction is a large industry and contributes significantly to the overall GDP of the country. It is an industry that gives jobs to skilled and unskilled alike. However, we do not see many women taking up technical and managerial roles, particularly as civil engineers, architects, structural engineers and maintenance and supervisorial staff. There is a niche emerging sector of infrastructure financing and IT-enabled asset management. We need to start relevant courses in this area and attract more women in this stream.Such disparity is also owing to the gender bias that exists within Indian society about women working onsite. It can even be seen in the ratio of male to female students in civil engineering courses as only a limited number of female students join the construction sector and the rest move on to join other industries, not considering construction or civil engineering as a career option. We need to encourage women to join this sector. An inclusive and encouraging work environment, with women becoming role models for other women, can form a positive chain reaction to encourage young female professionals to join the industry. Women’s participation in the construction industry is important not only for achieving higher growth but to attain the overall social development of the country