Highway work regains pace after pandemic speed bump

  • MorRTH official says the momentum may suffer once again with monsoon on the horizon

Subhash Narayan
Updated17 Jun 2022
The pace of construction fell by over 20% in 2021-22 to 10,457 km of national highways as compared with 13,327 km in 2020-21.
The pace of construction fell by over 20% in 2021-22 to 10,457 km of national highways as compared with 13,327 km in 2020-21.

Work on road construction has picked up once again, with 729 km of highways readied in the month of May -- 18% more than the 617 km built in pandemic-hit May 2021.

In fact, the pace of construction fell by over 20% in 2021-22 to 10,457 km of national highways as compared with 13,327 km in 2020-21.

“There are signs that road construction activity will pick up hereon after a not-so-impressive last year. But, with monsoon on the horizon, the pace may once again suffer with a big pick-up expected from September onwards,” said an official at the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH).

The slump in road construction last year and again in April this year came even as the government promised to take highway construction to an all-time high with the rate going up to 50 km a day in FY23 from less than 30 km a day in the previous fiscal year.

With activity picking up pace in May, the hope is that the ambitious target will be achieved. But this would entail at least 1,500 km of highway construction per month, twice the current levels.

As per MoRTH data, while road construction is higher in May, in the first two months of FY23, 1,307 km of national highways were constructed as compared to 1,470 km in the corresponding period of last year.

The award figure is 496 km in May this year as compared to 663 km in the same month in 2021.

Last year was one of the worst in terms of road construction as numbers fell over 20% due to the twin blow from the pandemic and an unusually long rainy season. This prevented the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) from completing the targeted 12,000 km of highways last year and the trend continued to restrict work in April as well, with a slight improvement in May.

Road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari has set an even stiffer target for road construction. In a tweet earlier he said that the government is committed to expanding the national hjighways (NHs) network with the aim of constructing 18,000 km of NHs in 2022-23 at a record 50km per day.

The overall target is to develop 200,000 km of NH network by 2025. The minister had also emphasized the need to construct a world class road infrastructure in a time-bound and target-oriented way, as road infrastructure was the “Atma” (soul) of Atmanirbhar Bharat.

Interestingly, the ministry had originally set a target of 14,600 km of highways in F22, or 40 km a day—up from 13,327 km target for the previous year. It was later scaled down to 12,000 km.

As per government data, highway construction fell to its lowest in four years to 21.3 km a day during April-November 2021 (picked up pace in March when over 2,400 km of highways were constructed) compared with an average of 25.8 km a day in the same period of FY21. It was 24.8 km a day in FY20 and 24 km a day in FY19—both pre-pandemic years when construction was picking up pace.

The slower pace of highway development in FY22 was unexpected considering it is one segment that had previously managed to deliver the goods in spite of many disruptions. In a normal year, construction picks up pace post-monsoon but the extended monsoon followed by the third wave of covid-19 delayed awards and construction.

Senior officials clarified that in FY23 construction of 12,000 km of national highways may be taken up, which is close to 33 km per day. The aim of the government is to take up daily construction to 50 km per day, but officials indicated it will take at least two years to achieve the target.

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