For harassed commuters spending 45-60 minutes at the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway toll gates, National Highways Authority of India’s (NHAI) notice to terminate Delhi Gurgaon Super Connectivity Limited’s (DGSCL) concession provides a sense of vindication but the vital question is whether the next concessionaire, should there be one, will fare any better. To be sure, DGSCL hasn’t covered itself with glory. If it was more proactive and provided, say, heavily discounted smart tags, this would lower the proportion of commuters wasting precious minutes fishing out the exact change (R21) at the toll gates. But NHAI is even more to blame. Apart from, for instance, deciding the Rao Tula Ram Marg stretch would have to be elevated two years into the contract, its traffic projections were woefully wrong—the 2013 projection was achieved on the opening day in 2008, and growth has only increased since. If the 32 toll gates were inadequate, these were based on NHAI’s project design and, if DGSCL is to be believed, its proposals to increase the number of toll gates have been pending with AAI since 2009. Though the roads ministry says DGSCL has made no suggestions on improving traffic flow, the simple issue is that, as the concessioning authority, running the road is NHAI’s responsibility.
If traffic has wildly exceeded projections, even a few more gates may not help, nor will electronic tagging beyond a point, though there’s little doubt all of this has to be done, yesterday. Analysing traffic flows will make it clear a large part of the traffic is that going to Manesar, Neemrana, Jaipur, all the way to Mumbai. So why not look at an elevated road taking away the through-Gurgaon traffic and tolling it somewhere past Gurgaon?
There is the larger issue of financing since, based on securitising future toll collections, the R1,300 crore or so DGSCL managed to raise is much more than the debt NHAI has guaranteed to pay in case of terminating the contract—NHAI’s guarantees are based on the R550 crore project cost. While securitising is a legitimate way to go, financiers need to think about whether exceeding NHAI’s termination payments is a workable idea—NHAI argues DGSCL’s securitisation is a breach of contract, but if so, it has also failed to act on this for a very long time. Given NHAI’s role in project design and supervision, and the estimated R10,000 crore stuck in litigation with concessionaires, we need a road regulatory-cum-appellate structure—NHAI cannot be defendant, prosecutor and judge at the same time.