Nitin Gadkari addressing a press conference on the Bharatmala highway project in New Delhi. (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • With the Bharatmala project, there is an opportunity to transform India’s connectivity.

    Here’s a dive into the project and what it entails:

When Arun Shourie, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporter-turned-critic, awarded the “Congress + Cow” epitaph to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he would not have known that this zinger would end up defining succinctly the saffron party for a majority of its die-hard opponents. Even the party’s supporters who get frustrated with its ways every now and then employ this phrase to lash at the party even if they don’t really believe in it.

“Suit boot ki sarkar” is the only other one-liner – a false charge of equal proportion if not more – that has caught the imagination of this government’s baiters with such intense fervour. In a way, this forced Prime Minister Modi to pivot and completely transform his image from a ‘pro-business’ chief executive officer of the country to a ‘pro-poor’ pradhan sevak.

When looked closely, the “Congress + Cow” claim doesn’t hold water. And the likes of Shourie and Yashwant Sinha can’t put their finger on initiatives taken by Vajpayee and not pursued by the current ruling dispensation. Road construction in general and the golden quadrilateral in particular are what Vajpayee is most remembered for on the domestic policy front, apart from disinvestment and privatisation. On both these accounts, Modi is running up the score on Vajpayee. This year’s disinvestment target is the highest ever, and the government is well on its way to meet it. Privatisation of Air India will be much bigger than any other privatisation initiative of National Democratic Alliance-1.

On 25 October, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced an ambitious Rs 6.92 lakh crore outlay for construction and upgradation of India’s roads network – the biggest ever undertaking on this front since Vajpayee’s golden quadrilateral (GQ) and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY).

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The Vajpayee government’s achievements in this area were impressive so much so that even the United Progressive Alliance government in 2013, in an affidavit in the Supreme Court, accepted that the NDA regime built nearly 50 per cent of the total national highways laid in the last 32 years. According to IndiaSpend, the NDA added 15,984km of national highways to the total network in just five years, while the UPA could construct only 13,674km in its nine years of rule. The Modi government has again put road construction on priority after coming to power. In the last three years of the UPA, 81,095km of rural roads were built, while in the first three years after that, the Modi government has built 120,233km.

The Modi government’s goal – to build and upgrade 83,677km of roads in the next five years – if completed, will make Vajpayee’s achievement pale in comparison. It will increase total corridors from the current six (four GQ, North-South, East-West) to 50. Currently, 40 per cent freight is carried on national highways, which will rise to 70-80 per cent. Presently, only 300 districts are connected via four (or more) lane highways. Under Bharatmala, the number of connected districts will cross 550.

This corridor-based road development was started under prime minister Vajpayee’s visionary National Highways Development programme, which resulted in two of India’s best infrastructure achievements – golden quadrilateral connecting India’s four biggest metropolitan areas at the time and the North-South and East-West corridors connecting the far ends of the country. However, after the Vajpayee government demitted office, the N-S, E-W corridor also lost momentum. Instead of developing the corridor as a whole, small-stretch projects were taken up and lot of anomalies crept in where some parts of the corridor were four-laned while others remained two-laned, as evident in the picture below.

Some parts of the East-West corridor are four-laned while others are two-laned. Some parts of the East-West corridor are four-laned while others are two-laned.

Bharatmala Pariyojana aims to correct these inconsistencies.

It has six components. The first involves efficiency improvements in national corridors, which will include lane expansion and decongestion of the six existing corridors, namely the golden quadrilateral and the North-South and East-West ones. In phase 1 of the project, 5,000km of such roads will be built. The second component entails development of economic corridors. Around 44 such corridors have been identified which connect important production and consumption centres. In the first phase, 9,000km of such roads will be constructed. Third, roads linking the economic corridors to each other will be developed in addition to feeder roads that will provide first-mile and last-mile connectivity. In phase 1, 6,000km of roads will be built. The fourth component involves providing connectivity to border areas and neighbour countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. For phase 1, 2,000km of roads have been identified. Fifth, 2,000km of roads in phase 1 will be built to provide links to ports and coastal areas so that port-led development gets a fillip. Sixth, 800km of greenfield expressways will be constructed in the first phase.

Unlike other run-of-the-mill government projects, a lot of thought and preparation have gone into this one. For instance, of the total target length of 83,677km roads, 66,100km have already been identified, of which 24,800km will be constructed in the first phase.

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Identification of the corridors also was no mean task. A rigorous step-wise process was followed.

First, the government tracked freight movement across 600 districts – which cities are top importers, which are top exporters, which are the top import/export commodities flowing between the two points, and so on.

Second, over 12,000 routes in the country, which account for transportation of 90 per cent of the total freight traffic through roads, were studied and mapping was done to find out if the existing routes are also the shortest. It so happens that between City A and B there are two routes – one is 120km long and the other is 100km long, but it takes less time to go from A to B when going via the longer stretch due to better connectivity. This exercise revealed that 20 per cent of the routes that vehicles took were different from the shortest route available to them.

A comparison between the prescribed route and the shortest route from Chennai to Bellary A comparison between the prescribed route and the shortest route from Chennai to Bellary

Third, manual traffic counters and technology were employed to track the movement of traffic at over 15,000 points to identify choke points.

Fourth, satellite mapping was done to identify which roads needed upgradation and how it could be carried out.

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This helped the government identify around 50 national corridors, economic corridors, inter-corridors and feeder routes, which will transport 70-80 per cent of total freight traffic that is running via the road network.

Under Bharatmala, 24 multimodal logistics parks will also be developed. Currently, under the point-to-point connectivity model, the cost of transporting one million tonne per kilometre is Rs 2.4. After logistics parks are developed, this cost will come down to Rs 1.8 – a reduction of one-fourth in costs. At least that’s the ideal situation the government is aiming for.

24 logistics parks identified under Bharatmala 24 logistics parks identified under Bharatmala

Only developing roads and leaving them there is not the end goal. The government has thought ahead and thus planned to remove potential and existing traffic choke points. It has identified 185 such nodes where it plans to construct 28 ring roads, 45 bypasses and 34 lane expansions. Additional 60 nodes will be added and strategies to resolve traffic woes around them developed in the coming days.

The North East region, neglected for decades by successive governments at the centre, finds special focus under Modi’s string of pearls project. Seven inland waterway terminals are coming up at Dhubri, Silghat, BiswanathGhat, Neamati, Dibrugarh, Sengajan and Oriyamghat, and the roads will connect important cities in the seven sister states with these nodes on Brahmaputra River, which will facilitate multimodal freight movement.

The North East corridor The North East corridor

The neighbouring countries, namely Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, will be connected mainly through diversions from the East-West corridor. That corridor, which connects Porbandar and Silchar, will extend further and become a part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand route. The government hopes to transform the North East into a hub of East Asia by plugging into their economies through transport corridors.

Integrating Bangladesh-Bhutan-Nepal and Myanmar-Thailand corridors Integrating Bangladesh-Bhutan-Nepal and Myanmar-Thailand corridors

Clearly, given such grandiose ambitions and lofty goals, the challenges before the government are huge. In the last fiscal, it built 8,600km length of roads at a pace of 22km per day. This is a huge improvement from the UPA days when the pace of laying roads struggled to touch even a double-digit figure. However, the current pace is also a far cry from the speed it will need to execute the goal it has set for itself; 83,677km of roads in five years means pace of construction has to be around 45km a day. By the next fiscal, Nitin Gadkari hopes to cross the speed of 40km a day. If he achieves that, this highly ambitious target will not be insurmountable.

The government will chiefly follow two models: engineering, procurement, construction (EPC), and build, operate, transfer (BOT). Of the total outlay of Rs 6.92 lakh crore, Rs 2.09 lakh crore is expected to be raised from the market, which Gadkari has said the National Highways Authority of India has no problem in raising. The only obstacle could be private investment, which the government is hoping will put in at upwards of Rs 1 lakh crore. Private investment is currently weak and will take time to pick up. With government deciding to recapitalise public sector banks, this problem should start to solve itself. In any case, budgetary allocations can always fill the gap given that infrastructure investment will pay off at a later date in the form of higher growth.

The bottom line is, there is many a slip between cup and the lip. But if a dynamic minister like Gadkari remains at the helm of affairs and guides Modi’s vision into action on the roadways, he will have changed the country’s face dramatically by the seventy-fifth anniversary of the country’s independence. This mala of roads will connect India like never before.

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