New Delhi: Ahead of plans to give out some 10,000km in road projects over the next year, the ruling United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, is replacing at least half of the six-member board of the National Highways Authority of India, or NHAI, the country’s apex road regulator.
The radical revamp of the board, the first of its kind, comes at a time when the ministry of shipping, road transport and highways, which works closely with NHAI, has been under severe criticism for its inability to meet the deadlines for developing road projects in the country.
NHAI oversees the National Highway Development Programme (NHDP), under which, almost 33,097km of highways were to be four-laned. Barely 50% of the projects have been awarded so far. As of February this year, work on only 7,942km of highways have been completed; of this, work on around 5,500km was completed during the tenure of the National Democratic Alliance government, which preceded UPA.
The revamp comes at a time when the ministry of shipping, road transport and highways has been under criticism for its inability to meet the deadlines for developing road projects in the country
NHDP, launched in 1996, was seen as a flagship programme for successive governments, especially since an estimated 60% of freight is still transported by road in the country. There are 66,000km of national highways in India.
Neither the minister, T.R. Baalu, nor the concerned officials, NHAI chairman N. Gokulram and road transport secretary Brahm Dutt, could be immediately reached for comment on Thursday evening. As a result, it is still not clear as to why the government has sought such an overhaul in the NHAI board. The changes have been effected over the past 15 days.
Mint has independently confirmed from various government officials who do not wish to be identified that three out of the six members on NHAI’s board were asked to return to positions at the ministry in the last fortnight. According to officers at NHAI who do not wish to be identified, one of the members C. Kandasamy has already been named a chief engineer at the ministry of shipping and road transport.
A.V. Sinha and Nirmaljeet Singh, too, are being forced to “come back” to their parent ministry. “In one case, the ministry said it would promote a junior officer thereby forcing an NHAI member—on deputation with NHAI—to seek repatriation (back to the ministry),” an officer at the regulator who did not wish to be identified added.
While Sinha could not be reached for comment, Nirmaljeet Singh and Kandasamy declined comment. “I am not with NHAI any more. And for any information pertaining to board members, please contact the chairman,” Kandasamy said.
The shake-up in NHAI’s board comes at a time when the regulator has been accused of not only failing to meet deadlines, but also misgovernance.
“In fact, one of the members was threatened with suspension because some projects in Tamil Nadu got delayed,” said the officer at NHAI.
Highway builders say working with NHAI is difficult primarily because officers refuse to make decisions. “You can say one contractor is bad or may be two contractors are bad, but how can all contractors be bad at the same time? It is the authority (NHAI) that refuses to make decisions for three years sometimes. We are tired of working for them,” said an executive with a highway builder who did not wish to be named. “Why is it, that the same contractors perform on time when it comes to work by the Delhi Metro Corporation?” the executive asked.
Contractors also claim that the authority is unwilling to release money for changes in the scope of work for fear of being investigated by the vigilance department. Mint had earlier reported that almost three in ten NHAI contracts end up in some form of arbitration or the other.
None of the contractors or highway builders contacted by Mint would speak on record, saying it could affect their chances of winning contracts from NHAI in the future.
Meanwhile, the NHAI officials said the board was being revamped because it did not agree with certain proposals made by the Planning Commission on guidelines for drafting tenders for upcoming projects.
“The fact is that the minister has been unhappy with the way the NHAI has functioned in the last year and so these changes are being contemplated,” said a senior government official, who did not wish to be identified.
NHAI has also been named in a court case filed by the National Highway Builders Federation, a trade body representing highway contractors, who claimed that recent pre-qualification criteria used by NHAI favour large bidders. The case is expected to be heard by the Delhi High Court on Friday.
One analyst said it was not fair to accuse only the board, saying that other organizations, such as the Planning Commission, were equally to blame for not ironing out policy issues related to work on NHDP. “The paranoia of the government (over being blamed for non-completion of highways in an election year) could be a factor,” said this analyst who did not wish to be identified.