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