Why high­way de­vel­op­ment in the North-East is fraught with road­blocks

The Hindu Business Line - - NEWS - PRATIM RAN­JAN BOSE

Run­jhun Go­goi of Guwa­hati is not happy with the BJP govern­ment at the Cen­tre. As a sales­per­son, he needs to travel all over As­sam, and the con­di­tion of the two ma­jor high­ways con­nect­ing Guwa­hati with ei­ther bank of the Brahma­pu­tra — NH-37 and NH-52 — makes his jour­ney painful.

With a huge fo­cus on the build­ing of in­fra­struc­ture in the North-East, high­ways should have been a game changer for the Modi govern­ment in the 2019 elec­tions. Un­for­tu­nately, the de­vel­op­ment is patchy.

High­way con­di­tions vis­i­bly im­proved in States such as Manipur and Tripura. How­ever, in As­sam, the largest State in the re­gion, the progress re­mained slow for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Mul­ti­plic­ity of agen­cies is a ma­jor prob­lem in the re­gion

There is no im­me­di­ate so­lu­tion in sight ei­ther to help com­plete the projects on a war foot­ing.

Take the case of four-lan­ing of NH-52, which con­nects the North Bank. Since De­cem­ber 15, road de­vel­op­ment on the 84km stretch from Ja­muguri to Goh­pur has come to a grind­ing halt, with those los­ing land de­mand­ing an ad­di­tional ₹437 crore com­pen­sa­tion, on top of

the amount they re­ceived dur­ing land ac­qui­si­tion.

They have al­ready won an ar­bi­tra­tion or­der. The ex­e­cut­ing agency, the Na­tional High­way In­fra­struc­ture De­vel­op­ment Corporation Ltd (NHIDCL) Ltd, sought per­mis­sion for bud­get en­hance­ment from the govern­ment. But, un­til that is sanc­tioned, the vil­lagers will not al­low the work to con­tinue.

Ac­cord­ing to Ajay Ahkuwalia, NHIDCL Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor, con­sid­er­ing that the work-win­dow is barely six months (Oc­to­ber-April) here, the project com­ple­tion may be de­layed by a year.

Con­trac­tor woes

Mean­while, the four-lan­ing of NH-37, con­nect­ing Guwa­hati with the tea coun­try of up­per As­sam, is fac­ing se­ri­ous ca­pac­ity is­sues on the part of the EPC con­trac­tors. Bar­ring a small 15-km sec­tion, the max­i­mum phys­i­cal progress on the 183-km road is 18 per cent.

NHIDCL has al­ready ter­mi­nated con­tracts of for­eign ma­jors Cor­san Corvium and At­lanta Ltd, who to­gether han­dled three pack­ages on the NH-37. GDCL from Mum­bai won the repeat ten­der for two of the pack­ages. This com­pany too, failed to achieve the mile­stones and was served an in­ten­tion of ter­mi­na­tion no­tice in Oc­to­ber 2018.

Over­all, con­trac­tors for six pack­ages on NH-37 and NH-52 are fac­ing the ter­mi­na­tion sword. But ter­mi­na­tion is un­likely to speed up road-build­ing, as there is a se­ri­ous dearth of good con­trac­tors due to past fi­nan­cial crises.

Also, with the rush for high­way de­vel­op­ment across the coun­try, bet­ter con­trac­tors are stay­ing away from the NortEast. The con­trac­tors from the re­gion lack bal­ance-sheet ca­pac­ity and due ex­pe­ri­ence.

Ah­luwalia, mean­while, is en­sur­ing main­te­nance of the ex­ist­ing NH-37 by the con­trac­tors. How­ever, the ini­tia­tive is not free from lim­i­ta­tions, as main­te­nance of the old high­way is not part of the de­vel­op­ment con­tract.

The con­nec­tiv­ity from Guwa­hati to Ko­hima in Na­ga­land is the worst-af­fected, but for a sep­a­rate rea­son. At least four agen­cies, in­clud­ing the NHAI, NHIDCL, PWD (NH) and PWD (Na­ga­land), are in charge of de­vel­op­ing and main­tain­ing this key link, parts of which fall un­der the Asian High­way Project.

Mul­ti­plic­ity of agen­cies is a ma­jor prob­lem in the re­gion, a good part of which is ex­pected to be cor­rected as and when the Bharat­mala project gains pace.

Too many hur­dles

Though re­ferred to in pol­icy cir­cles as a com­mon unit, the re­gion has ex­treme di­ver­sity in so­cio-cul­tural and cli­matic is­sues. In parts of Arunachal and Megha­laya, rain­fall per­sists for nearly eight months a year, mak­ing bi­tu­mi­nous work im­pos­si­ble. The moun­tains on this side are younger than those in Hi­machal or Ut­tarak­hand, thereby in­creas­ing the risk of an earth­quake. The re­gion falls un­der seis­mic zone 5. The so­ci­eties are gen­er­ally in­su­lar, and of­ten at log­ger­heads with each other, which cre­ates ad­di­tional hur­dles in im­ple­ment­ing the road projects.

But there are two prob­lems prov­ing to be the big­gest worry for road con­struc­tion. Apart from As­sam and Tripura, other States in the re­gion have few land records. And so, vir­tu­ally any­one can claim com­pen­sa­tion. The NHIDCL, for ex­am­ple, has paid both vil­lagers and the for­est author­ity for the same piece of land in Arunachal Pradesh.

Last but not the least, the re­gion is de­pen­dent on out­side sup­plies for house­hold and in­dus­trial con­sump­tion. This, cou­pled with poor lo­gis­tics, makes road con­struc­tion ex­tremely costly and dif­fi­cult.

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