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New speed breaker on India's road to $ 5 trn economy; NHAI's mounting debt

NHAI's debt has increased seven-fold in the past five years

Dhwani Pandya | Bloomberg 

Highways

India’s path to economic recovery faces another obstacle, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking the state road builder to stop constructing highways after its debt ballooned almost seven-fold over the past five years.

"totally logjammed with unplanned and excessive expansion of roads," the prime minister’s office wrote to in a letter dated August 17. "mandated to pay several times the land cost; its construction costs also shooting up. Road infrastructure has become financially unviable."

Modi’s office proposed that be transformed into a road-asset management company, according to the letter obtained by Bloomberg, and the prime minister’s office asked NHAI to reply within a week.

The decision is a reversal from Modi’s first term, when his administration was praised for its breakneck speed of highway construction that helped make India one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. However this came with the burden of escalating costs, leaving NHAI increasingly dependent on the government for financial support at a time when Modi is looking to contain his budget deficit.

Restricting road-building risks imperiling Modi’s target to make India a $5 trillion economy as roads are necessary for socio-economic development, said Vikash Kumar Sharda, a partner at Infranomics Consulting LLP, who previously consulted for PWC India. “Road is critical infrastructure, and putting breaks on it will not only result in a slowdown of highway construction but also of other sectors that are dependent on it.”

There’s a strong co-relation between economic growth and investments in infrastructure, with roads accounting for about 3.1% of gross value added, Modi’s economic advisers said in a report this year. Data due Friday will probably show India’s expanded 5.7% in the quarter through June, the slowest pace in five years.

New speed breaker on India's road to $ 5 trn economy; NHAI's mounting debt

Modi’s office now wants NHAI to revert to a model used by his predecessor, where NHAI would auction projects to developers. They’d construct the roads, collect toll from users and then would transfer ownership back to NHAI after an agreed period. Weak private sector participation pushed Modi to scrap this practice and he permitted NHAI to bear as much as 100% of the costs in certain road projects that led to ballooning debt.

NHAI’s outstanding debt of Rs 1.8 trillion would entail annual interest servicing of about Rs 14,000 crore, higher than the Rs 10,000 rorw NHAI collects as toll, according to analysts at SBICap Securities Ltd.

Land acquisition costs have also risen to more than 25 million rupees per hectare from Rs 90 crore after fair-price laws were introduced in 2013, and this alone accounts for more than 30% of NHAI’s expenses, according to ICRA Ratings Ltd.

The prime minister’s office didn’t reply to an email seeking comment and NHAI declined to comment. The letter contains only suggestions and top-rated NHAI is fully capable of raising enough debt to keep building roads, Nitin Gadkari, Modi’s minister for roads, was cited by the Mint newspaper as saying on Tuesday.


New speed breaker on India's road to $ 5 trn economy; NHAI's mounting debt

Ratings company ICRA on Wednesday said the build up of debt means NHAI must either go slow on new projects -- a choice Modi can’t afford as he needs to spur economic growth -- or shift to a build-operate-transfer model involving equity-purchases by private players. Many developers can’t support huge equity investments that are part of BOT projects, the rating company said.

Among the beneficiaries of this shift could be IRB Infrastructure Developers Ltd., which has traditionally focused on BOT projects where the operator collects a toll from road users.

“The decision to switch back to BOT-toll is much needed given the fiscal constraints,” IRB Infrastructure Chairman Virendra Mhaiskar said. “In the present dispensation, given the land acquisition cost, restricting to BOT only for a year or two may be a wise idea.”

First Published: Fri, August 30 2019. 06:51 IST
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