A recent white paper on national highway-building released by the Centre provides impressive figures. The awarding of national highway projects rose from 1,872km to an all-time high of 7,283km between 2008-09 and 2011-12. Statistics can indeed be deceptive. In this case, it does not reveal how many projects had obtained all the clearances before they were awarded to contractors. In many cases, even land for construction had not been obtained, leading to litigation and stoppage of work. Worse, there was little inter-departmental cooperation in seeing the projects through. Therefore, awarding of contracts does not mean that the projects would be completed.
The Modi government is keen on building more roads which, it believes, will pave the way for faster economic development. It has set an ambitious target of constructing 8,500km roads this year. It can achieve this only if corrective measures are taken in the light of past experiences. Before contracts are given, land should be acquired and all the administrative and regulatory approvals obtained. This will ensure there will be no post-bid delays and litigation. There will also be greater interest among developers and investors. What matters is how many road projects are completed, rather than initiated, in a year.
Central to the success of national highway construction is the need to restore functional autonomy to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). It is a statutory authority set up under an Act of Parliament, answerable to the people. Unfortunately, the UPA government encroached upon its autonomy when it created a separate inter-ministerial Public Private Partnership (PPP) Approval Committee to clear individual projects before the bidding process is initiated. There is no reason why project-specific approvals, including whether these should be executed through PPP or direct funding, cannot be left to the NHAI, which has the domain knowledge. Such empowerment must, of course, come with the setting of clear targets and accountability, including to Parliament.