Intro: The government needs to have a steely resolve to develop a robust network of roadways and highways for making India a giant global manufacturing hub. It will be one important step in realising the great Indian dream.
India's second tryst with destiny has begun. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it has begun its historical ascent to the zenith of progress and glory as ordained by providence. But the journey cannot be and is not smooth. It is an arduous task to rise from one of the poor and underdeveloped countries of the world to a global economic and political superpower. But all high goals, unrealised, half realised or fully realised, begin as dreams. And if one is determined to win, dreams do come true.
India's physical infrastructure is still in poor condition. Roads and highways which are the linking lines of the population of any country need to be adequate to provide proper connectivity to habitation and business centres of the country. To realise this, the country's prime minister under NDA-1, Atal Behari Vajpayee had laid the foundation of a robust roadways and highways infrastructure by conceiving the golden quadrilateral network and building a significant portion of it during his tenure. But over the last eight or nine years, construction of roads and highways infrastructure has deplorably slowed down and can be a hurdle in the kind of economic development that we aspire for.
To speed-up the process, under PM’s leadership, the central government has taken the first step to list down all the points for attracting and encouraging investment, both domestic and foreign in roads and highways infrastructure in India. Potential for returns to business houses investing in these areas has been very succinctly described. But we need to look at some very important issues in this regard before expecting any investment from the domestic private sector or foreign business houses.
Roads and Highways do not require the know-how of high-end technology. India has all the technological knowhow and expertise in this area. Capital is one issue, though the humongous amounts of illegal wealth stashed in India and abroad remains the biggest potential source of capital for infrastructure development for the government of the day. But the most important issue is weakness in project implementation which we seriously need to improve.
Lack of regulatory mechanism in this sector has ensured that construction of roads and highways remains at the mercy of small and medium contractors scattered across the country. These contractors are grossly unorganised and fragmented and cannot be controlled with a tight leash for timely and quality execution of projects in the absence of a sound legal framework and a strong government regulatory structure. The result of working in such an unregulated, unorganised, unstructured and legally slack business environment is there for all of us to see. The projects got inordinately delayed. Many highway projects got stranded. Land acquisition of highway tracts running through states has been a cause of big interruption in work and the consequent delay in project completion. There have been numerous instances of contractors leaving the work midway and fleeing or of local people including ill motivated NGOs obtaining stay orders from local courts for halting work.
It is well known that construction of roads and highways is a low profit margin business. For this reason, construction companies prefer working in real estate sector rather than the less lucrative roads and highways sector. The government needs to look at this aspect seriously and needs to provide a minimum guaranteed return of 15 or 16 percent similar to power generation business. This will also induce capital infusion in highway construction projects. The National Highways Development Authority which has earned an unenviable reputation for corruption and graft needs to be monitored by a regulatory body directly reporting to the PMO. A standing example of this is the case of Satyendra Dubey who was murdered in broad daylight for resisting the designs of the contractor-official caucus.
But the most important bottleneck in sound growth of the roadways infrastructure is the weak legal institutional framework which needs to be strengthened foremost. Making it mandatory for courts to deliver judgements in a time bound manner, and provide speedy justice to new plaintiffs and making judgements binding at various levels from panchayat to the high court are some of the steps that need to be taken to make our legal infrastructure sound and conducive to growth.
In the highways sector, the most important issue that needs to be addressed is the project implementation issue. It will be one important step in realising the great Indian dream.
(The writer is a senior columnist)