Road to nowhere PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 16 February 2006 00:00
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Last week’s collapse of the newly-built Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) highway near Kolkata should serve as a wake-up call on just how far things have been allowed to slip on what was once a prestigious project, directly supervised by the Prime Minister’s Office, a project that was seen as a harbinger of the new way in which infrastructure projects were going to be handled. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) was like none other, and asked for global bids for not just building the GQ highways, but also farmed out the supervisory functions on each highway to another consultant, also picked on the basis of global bids. Not only would this speed up work, it was believed, it would also ensure there was no scope for a nexus between corrupt government engineers and the contractors whom they supervised. Indeed, when many questioned the high costs of these highways, at Rs 4 crore a kilometre, it was pointed out that these were world class roads, not your run of the mill ones that got washed away with each rain. Well, the road didn’t even get washed away, it just caved in, leaving the site looking as if an earthquake had struck. Clearly, the model isn’t working as seamlessly as it was supposed to, nor is it possible any more to unquestioningly accept that just because globally-competitive consultants are involved, the work will automatically be world class. Indeed, this is precisely the point that the slain NHAI engineer, Satyendra Dubey, was trying to highlight when he was murdered.
Hopefully the panel set up to examine the matter will come up with some solid answers, and tests will be applied to all other GQ projects as well. After all, if the construction company and the supervising engineers did not know that the soft and marshy soil of West Bengal required very different treatment from that in other parts of the country, there is every reason to suspect that proper vetting may not have happened in other parts of the GQ as well. Already, stories are being spread that the fault lay with the NHAI, which prescribed similar norms across the country despite local conditions being different. Quite apart from what this says about the NHAI, if true, it does not speak highly of the expertise of the so-called supervisory consultants either.
The other worrying aspect of the NHAI project is the poor implementation record. The first part of the ambitious highway project, the 5,846-km long GQ, was supposed to be finished by the end of 2004, but this deadline was pushed back to 2005 and then to 2006, and now time periods of even 2008 are being talked of. The biggest cause of delay was the tardy progress in acquiring land and clearing the utilities on it — under the contract, this was supposed to be done by the government and not the private contractors. This problem, it appears, is now being experienced in even the second part of the highway project, the North-South East-West corridor. While the project’s date of completion is 2008, less than 15 per cent of the land that needs to be acquired has been bought so far. The road project, once a matter of the topmost priority, is clearly going nowhere.



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