Please Stop Analysing Infrastructure Development Issues In Hasty Tweets

by Srikanth Ramakrishnan - Feb 16, 2017 12:08 AM +05:30 IST
Please Stop Analysing Infrastructure Development Issues In Hasty TweetsThe Mumbai-Pune Expressway was initiated earlier by then Public Works Department minister Nitin Gadkari. (Rohit Patwardhan/Flickr)
  • A senior journalist recently compared infrastructure development in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, and indicated that the former had fared much better than the other.

    The comparison, however, did not account for several factors that warrant one’s attention while evaluating infrastructure development in the two states.

Journalist Shekhar Gupta yesterday (14 February) compared the progress made on the infrastructure front under the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh and the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra, in a tweet.

Gupta’s comparison is unfair, and the facts don’t quite add up. Maharashtra is still among the top states in the country in the area of infrastructure. However, since it’s a large state, its infrastructure development is more diversified, comprising smaller projects that have a strong impact.

Maharashtra was actually India’s first state to build an expressway. The Mumbai-Pune Expressway was initiated by then Public Works Department minister Nitin Gadkari, and was built during Manohar Joshi’s tenure as Chief Minister. It was launched in 1997 and opened in phases, with the final section being launched in 2003, when the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine no longer governed Maharashtra. It set a benchmark of sorts for the nation, acting as a precursor to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Highway Development Project (NHDP).

The significant achievement of the expressway was that it managed to set a high bar for highway development, one that leaders in Uttar Pradesh may not be able to emulate as easily. Why? Six-lane wide, concrete, with five tunnels running through the Western Ghats, and all this done back in the late 1990s - that’s no mean task. None of Uttar Pradesh’s expressways match up because the terrain in the north-Indian state is mostly flat. Frankly, building a bridge over the Ganga would be the challenge.

It’s worth noting, however, that the 302km-long Agra-Lucknow Expressway is, in many ways, an extension of the Yamuna Expressway, connecting Greater Noida and Agra, which was initiated and built under the erstwhile Mayawati government. Also, the state’s contribution to National Highways is marginal. Uttar Pradesh’s Public Works Department (PWD) merely maintains two-laned national highway stretches that aren’t covered under the NHDP. And as for the quality of the roads, the less said, the better. The current government can be said to have inherited the Yamuna corridor from the previous administration and extended it to the state capital. The proposed 348km Samajwadi Purvanchal Expressway, connecting Lucknow to Ballia, too can be considered an extension of this project.

Maharashtra, on the other hand, has been a front runner in infrastructure development and for various reasons. If one goes back to Vajpayee’s time, one may recall that a part of the section of the Golden Quardrilateral connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad was built by the Maharashtra PWD and Gujarat PWD. In addition, two major sections of the corridor from Mumbai to Bengaluru were built by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC).

The western Indian state is also home to India’s first open-sea cable-stayed bridge (the Bandra-Worli Sea Link) as well as the eighth densest metro rail corridor. The 11km long Mumbai Metro Line 1, operational since 2014, took nearly a decade to be built under the previous government.

Unlike Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra did not inherit anything noteworthy in terms of infrastructure. The only major projects that the Fadnavis government inherited was the long-delayed metro line in Mumbai and the Sion-Panvel Expressway in Navi Mumbai. Besides these projects, all others have proved to be a damp squib.

The present government has not exactly had a smooth ride in the last two-and-half years. The BJP government has been criticised constantly by its ally, the Shiv Sena, once going so far as to suggest the possibility of midterm polls.

In his tweet, Gupta also specifically referred to the Coastal Road, the Transharbour Link (MTHL) and the Navi Mumbai airport.

While the Navi Mumbai airport has long been delayed for several reasons including land acquisition issues, lack of bidders, coastal and environmental regulations and constraints with the concession agreement with the GVK-operated Mumbai International Airport (MIAL), the Fadnavis government has gone ahead and prepared for Pune’s new airport. Uttar Pradesh has two international airports, one in Lucknow and the other in Varanasi. Maharashtra has three, in Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur. The airports in Nagpur and Pune have been neglected for over a decade now, and so the government’s decision to prioritise Pune was a good move.

Mumbai’s metro lines 2 and 3 failed to take off under the previous government. The line 2, which was originally handed to a Reliance Infra-led consortium in 2010, was ultimately cancelled in 2013 with then Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan telling the media “it is now clear that Mumbai's Metro II project will now not happen.” It took a year of replanning, restructuring and retendering, and now lines 2, 3 and 7 are under construction and the pace of progress is relatively good considering the land constraints in Mumbai. The line 3 was delayed due to its underground design as well as protests by several non-governmental organisations over the alleged destruction of the environment. The Navi Mumbai Metro is expected to be partly operational by 2018 while work on the Nagpur Metro is in full swing, and the Pune Metro is in the early stages. The state is currently the only one in the country to have five major mass transit projects (four metro lines and one monorail).

Now on to the two mega projects, the Coastal Road and the MTHL. The primary difference between these two projects and the Agra-Lucknow Expressway is simple; the former two are massive infrastructure projects that require reclamation and construction over the sea while the latter merely involves the building of an access-controlled road across flat land.

The Coastal Road, for starters, involves reclamation of land nearly 30km long. It received the nod of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Indian Navy in 2016. Due to the state’s decentralised nature, it is under the jurisdiction of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM/BMC), and has nothing to do with the Fadnavis government. Further, with the MCGM being controlled primarily by the Sena, problems are bound to arise. Due to the enormity of the project, it was split into two packages for faster execution last year.

The MTHL, on the other hand, is a 22km-long bridge across the Mumbai harbour that connects the island city to the mainland. The sheer length of the bridge was a factor in it not receiving a positive response from bidders on three different occasions. In 2016, during the fourth call, the Fadnavis government split up the project into smaller packages, and then it finally got some takers. The project faces numerous challenges from the Navy as well as the MoEF, especially due to the wide presence of mangroves and flamingo habitats in the region.

In stark contrast, Uttar Pradesh has two metro projects under construction: Noida-Greater Noida and Lucknow. No new major airport projects have been planned, which in itself is a let-down for India’s most populous state.

The most important point to note here lies in Gupta’s tweet itself. He compares the five years under Akhilesh’s government with the two-and-a-half under Fadnavis in Maharashtra. Surely a more apt comparison ought to be made in October 2019, when Maharashtra goes to polls.

Of course, the Agra-Lucknow Expressway in Uttar Pradesh is a significant project - no mistake there. However, its nature - given the flat, largely uninterrupted terrain - is very different from an open-sea bridge or a road built entirely on reclaimed land. This difference matters while drawing a comparison between the two states.

Srikanth’s interests include public transit, urban management and transportation infrastructure.

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