Arm-twisting GMR is hardly the way NHAI should go
Was the GMR Group wrong in walking out of the 555-km long Kishangarh-Udaipur-Ahmedabad national highway because the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) was not able to get the requisite environment and forest clearances that was its responsibility under the contract? Or was the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) wrong in insisting that no environment clearances would be given before forest clearances were obtained and, in any case, not being able to deliver on the forest clearances for very long periods of time? The latter appears to be the case, at least according to NHAI, based on the case it has filed in the Supreme Court against MoEF. But if the MoEF is to be blamed, why is NHAI now threatening to blacklist GMR from participating in future highway tenders? A final decision, it is true, is to be taken after a few days, but that’s what officials are talking about.
One of the reasons cited, albeit unofficially, is that GMR didn’t give NHAI the mandatory 90-day notice in which NHAI could have got the necessary permissions. There is already a delay of 16 months, and the fact that the NHAI-MoEF fight is now in the Supreme Court suggests the delay could extend many more months and even years. Yet, NHAI is trying to take cover under a 90-day notice rule. It is equally important to point out that if NHAI blacklists GMR, it may have to do the same with the GVK Group, which walked out of a 330-km long highway from Shivpuri to Dewas in Madhya Pradesh citing similar reasons—in this case, NHAI wasn’t able to get permission for it to excavate boulders from the site around which the road was to be extended. Indeed, with the economy tanking, some others are also expected to go the GMR/GVK way— since the firms may have over-committed on payments to NHAI, the delays have probably come in handy as well. In which case, the question NHAI needs to ask is who will build the roads if the bigger players are blacklisted.
Nor is it immediately clear that NHAI has done all it needed to do to help get the projects going. For one, environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan is on record saying NHAI never even gave her a complete application till recently. More important, even if MoEF was to delink forest and environment clearances, how would this help? Presumably, in a 400 km road with a 50-km forest stretch, this would mean the contractor could begin work on the 350-km stretch first. But if forest clearances never came for the 50-km stretch, does NHAI have a backup plan, an alternate route for which land has already been acquired? In the GMR case, even notifying toll rates—which didn’t require a nod from the MoEF—hadn’t been done for over 16 months. All told, NHAI hasn’t covered itself with glory either.