Highway to nowhere PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 10 March 2011 00:00
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Given how a recent study by the World Bank and the Asian Institute of Transport Development, along 995 km of the National Highway 2, confirms highway building is the best anti-poverty measure there is, it’s obvious the government would want to move up the pace of road-building several notches. Yet, after a spurt in contracts awarded by the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), there’s been a huge slump. From 1,200 km awarded in 2007-08, it fell to 611 km in 2008-09, jumped to 3,358 km in 2009-10 and rose to 4,100 km in the first 11 months of 2010-11—except, while about 2,700 km of projects got awarded in the first two months of the year, around half that got awarded in the next nine months. Roads completed have fallen from 2,693 km in 2009-10 to 859 km in the April to October 2010 period. One reason, of course, is the sharp fall in the NHAI’s processing of contracts following the arrest of two senior officials (another was transferred out) in the middle of last year, once charges of graft gained ground—things got so bad, India’s biggest construction firm L&T actually went to court challenging an arbitrary disqualification.

The other reason is that NHAI doesn’t have a full-time chairman even though the search committee under the Cabinet Secretary got all applications as long ago as June last year. The then chairman was also considered for an extension but he failed to get clearance from the vigilance department. Why it should take so long to find a suitable candidate is anybody’s guess. Interestingly, the criteria for applications were also fixed in such a way that the number of applications were quite limited, to make it certain only a senior bureaucrat could be selected for the job. This is unfortunate, more so given how, in the case of the CVC, the Supreme Court has just pointed out that the government would do well to consider more candidates than serving bureaucrats for important jobs. Given the huge responsibility the NHAI has to bear, and the nature of the complaints made against it—of the organisation hurtling towards bankruptcy, of projects being over-engineered, of large sums stuck in disputes, among others—the organisational challenge is a serious one.


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