Predecessor Kamal Nath’s target of constructing 20 km a day of national highways did not work out, but road transport and highways minister C P Joshi thinks the target is achievable once project award is on track. In an interview with Mihir Mishra & Jyoti Mukul, the mild-mannered Joshi admits to giving the Planning Commission a much greater say than earlier. Edited excerpts:
When the National Highways Development Programme (NHDP) was launched under the NDA regime, the pace of work was much faster than during the UPA government. Why is it so?
This perception is not correct. Due to the global recession, we could only award less than 1,000 km of road projects because there were fewer bidders. Tendering to construction takes three years. Now the pace of project awards has improved. We plan to award 7,300 km in the current financial year, that is more than 5,083 km awarded in 2010-11 and 3,360 km in 2009-10. We will build roads at 20 km a day by the end of three years.
An issue for companies not showing interest in road projects was because of uncertainty surrounding the bidding process and disputes between the Planning Commission and the ministry.
It may be the case in the past but as the minister, I have not come across any such problem. In our meetings, Planning Commission representatives are also invited. We are preparing a model concession agreement and that takes time.
In the past, the Planning Commission has raised concern about the financial health of NHAI and the government’s financing plan for road projects. Do you think road financing will be a challenge?
The government intends to address this issue of financing and has allowed NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) to raise Rs 10,000 crore through debt-free infrastructure bonds.
There is also a debt repayment burden which will fall on NHAI?
We will address it and that is why we are saying that we will follow the recommendations of the BK Chaturvedi committee and award 65 per cent of road projects on toll, 20 per cent on annuity and the rest on Engineering Procurement Construction (EPC) contracts.
Is there a plan to shift from awarding roads on annuity to a new EPC mode?
The EPC model is being followed but the practice was of item tendering. EPC cannot be in the form being practiced. We are addressing this issue by having a model EPC system. I cannot say anything on the shift now because the GoM (Group of Ministers) has to allow it. We think that EPC cannot be open-ended but see an increase during the construction period.
With no permanent chairman in NHAI, has work suffered?
Work has not suffered because it is the organisation that works. We want to expand the eligibility for chairmanship by bringing technocrats. We are also inviting views on Facebook, so that we get an idea whether we are moving in the right direction or not. It may so happen that a technocrat has good knowledge of the technology but is not a good administrator.
Would you be also looking at someone from the private sector?
Naturally, we would be also doing so, so that we can have some new thinking in the authority. This would require change in the rules of NHAI.
What other measures will the government take to strengthen NHAI?
We do require more manpower. We are addressing the main issue of having an NHAI chairman. NHAI is also facing a CBI inquiry on recruitment. We are trying to resolve the issue. As it is, a lot of NHAI construction work is outsourced, so the authority needs people only for monitoring, where information technology can be of use.
You have announced various initiatives like electronic tendering to weed out corruption from NHAI. Are there any more such initiatives being planned?
I am ready to implement any idea that will weed out corruption. As of now, we are starting e-tendering for road project awards by NHAI and the road transport ministry, so that the system becomes transparent.
How are you tackling the issue of sub-standard construction?
We have taken the help of Facebook. If there is any problem, anyone can approach Facebook and we can make the officer concerned accountable. In a federal structure, not all complaints can be resolved by the Union government and we could only forward these to the states. Now through Facebook, if a state is not addressing a problem, then that state has to be accountable. With this, a system for checks and balances will evolve.
Besides transparency and accountability, what other issues are you trying to address?
We need to ensure the roads built are of good quality and safe. For road safety, we have to educate youngsters about traffic rules and take steps to prevent overloading.