Halley Comet

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He is that rare personage, Nitin Gadkari, who not just talks, often sharply, but walks the talk and produces results, and is appreciated even by the Opposition

YOGESH VAJPEYI

YOGESH VAJPEYI

Yogesh Vajpeyi is a senior journalist with over 40 years of experience of working with leading newspapers like National Herald, The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Telegraph and The New Indian Express. He is currently writing in various journals and teaching journalism.

As a politician, Nitin Gadkari certainly has the gift of the gab and has used his will at the cost of his political adversaries. As a member of Narendra Modi’s Union Cabinet, however, he has emerged as an administrator who also knows to walk his talk. So when he says that, “I will change my name if India is not a changed place in terms of infrastructure before my government’s term is over!” it cannot be dismissed as an idle brag.

For this Union Minister for Shipping and Surface Transport has come to be respected as a performer, not only by his peers and those who work with him but also by the Opposition.

Evidence of this was aplenty during the just concluded Budget Session of Parliament, during the discussion on Gadkari’s milestone, the new Motor Vehicles Act.

It was a Haley’s Comet event in Parliament on the day that he presented and defended the new Motor Vehicles Act. Marked by years of acrimony on the floor, where legislators go into high decibels merely to obstruct business, the discussion was not just smooth, even opposition parliamentarians could be seen thumping the desk and heard making positive remarks about the minister.

Heaping praise on Gadkari, Congress leader KC Venugopal said he is a very “sincere” minister who has been trying hard to address major challenges facing the road transport sector. BJD member Tathagata Satpathy said Gadkari is a “hard working person” who is hell bent on proving that good work can be done even if the government is bad.

Single Star

“Even in the darkest of night, a single star looks bright,” Satpathy remarked. Congress leader in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, while complimenting Gadkari for his performance as a Union Minister, pointed towards the empty treasury benches, suggested there was not enough appreciation for his work from within the government, as they were absent.

This praise from the opposition is not a left-handed one. The most visible aspect of his performance as a minister is the speed at which road construction is being undertaken in India, including the difficult and inaccessible areas of the Himalayas and the North-East. From a mere 2 kms per day during the last year of the UPA II regime the pace of highway construction reached an all-time high of 23 kms a day in 2016-17 and the minister has set an ambitious target of 41 km a day for this fiscal.

Gadkari often quotes former American President John F. Kennedy to make a point about the importance of roads. “American roads are not good because America is rich,” he quotes. “But America is rich because American roads are good.” The golden words have been printed in bold, framed and hung in his office.

Easying Investments

So far, achieving such impossible targets was problematic due to bottlenecks viz. land acquisition and utility shifting, non-availability of aggregates, poor performance of contractors and delays in various clearances. Sources in the ministry said that the pace of highway construction would be higher in the subsequent years as awards of projects were higher in the last two fiscals.

Unlike in the past, MORTH or NHAI, the two implementing agencies, do not award any highway project unless 90 per cent of the land is available. Gadkari has also taken several steps to address the private investment famine in the sector. He has eased the exit policy for developers to enable them to invest in new projects and introduced the hybrid annuity model, where the Centre bears 40 per cent of the project cost.

During a recent review of the projects under the National Highways Authority of India, Gadkari said , “While a record 16,271 km of National Highways have been awarded and 8,231 km constructed during the year 2016-17, work needs to be done at a much faster pace to award more projects and construct those that have been awarded.”

In the sync with the plan to construct highways at an average clip of 41 km per day in 2017-18, the minister has announced awards to senior officials for walking the extra mile and actualising the target.

Act, Don’t Gripe

“I am giving you the target. If you face any problem, share now. Don’t give me excuses at the end of the year,” Gadkari was quoted as saying by a senior officer present in the review meeting.

The minister’s concern is not confined to speedier highway construction. He is equally conscious of making Indian roads safer. The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill that was passed by the Lok Sabha in the recent session not only imposes the hefty penalty for drunk and negligent drivers but also holds those responsible for bad road designs accountable.

Automakers who make faulty vehicles or manipulate their software to bypass the emission norms will also get deterrent punishment.

Gadkari has brought about a similar transformation in the shipping sector. Powered by the shipping ministry’s focus on reducing the turnaround time of ships and adding various non-core commodities to its freight basket, India’s 12 major ports posted a record profit of about Rs 5,000 crore for 2016-17. These ports had reported a profit of Rs. 4,000 crore in the previous fiscal. “We have grown faster than the private ports. Our growth has been 6.79 per cent compared to 4 per cent in private ports,” Gadkari points out.

His ministry is now eyeing a profit of Rs. 7,000 crore in 2017-18.

Cruising Tonnage

The shipping ministry’s focus in the current financial year will be to add capacity of 103 million tonnes and develop Mumbai port as the country’s hub for cruise tourism. “We are building the country’s first terminal at a cost of Rs. 800 crore at the Mumbai port. We expect to handle almost 100 international cruise ships a year from there,” Gadkari informs.

The minister is equally intent to develop inland waterways as a game changer in national connectivity. Last year the Modi government has enacted a law allowing 106 rivers across the country to be converted into National Waterways (NWs), in addition to the existing five.

Five of the river stretches, which have been declared as National Waterways, include Allahabad-Haldia on Ganga (1,620 km), Brahmaputra’s Dhubri-Sadiya (891 km), West Coast Canal Kottapuram-Kollam (205 km), Kakinada-Puducherry canals (1,078 km) and East Coast Canal integrated with Brahmani River and Mahanadi delta rivers (588 km).

Going Ahead

Work on the five stretches has already started. Contracts worth Rs 4,000 crore have been given in the case of the Ganga. Waterways have been built from Varanasi to Haldia (a distance of 1,620 kilometres and Water Ports are being built at 40 places between Varanasi and Haldia.

Development of new waterways will boost movement of goods and passengers via rivers and reduce transportation costs substantially. In the first phase, Gadkari plans to concentrate on 36 waterways, the feasibility studies for which have been completed. “We will develop these in a major way in the first phase, as India has huge potential in this so far untapped segment despite endowed with rivers that could change the economy,” Nitin Gadkari says.

Development of inland waterways is part of his multi-modal transport strategy that aims at doubling of the share of waterways in transporting freight by 2025. Take the project to dredge the Brahmaputra River from Sadia in Upper Assam to increase navigational channels up to Chittagong port in Bangladesh for instance. “Once this project materialises, it will change the entire economic corridor of Assam,” Gadkari says.

The project would ensure that the Brahmaputra National Waterway-II has direct access to Haldia port in West Bengal and Chittagong port in Bangladesh, and would boost trade with South East Asian nations. The Centre would provide funds for development of 56 jetties on the banks of Brahmaputra and operationalise five more Roll-On and Roll-Off vessels to improve waterway communication in Assam.

The state governments have been asked to identify places on the banks of the Brahmaputra which could be developed into ports and submit a feasibility report to the Union Ministry.

A total of 871 km of the mighty Brahmaputra in Assam will be dredged with the Centre bearing its expenditure. The Assam Government, Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) and National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) signed an agreement for the project on April 4 in presence of the Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari and Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.

As per the agreement, the IWAI would carry out dredging of the National Waterways-II, i.e., the river Brahmaputra, and other waterways within Assam. The State Government agreed to provide continuous support to the IWAI and NHAI to implement the project. The NHAI would develop and upgrade different sections of the National Highways within the State. The State Government agreed to give rights for usage of sand and silt, suitable and acceptable quality and dredged materials dumped on the banks of the waterways within the state boundary to the IWAI and NHAI at reasonable or no cost.

The sand and silt dredged by the IWAI would be used by the agency for construction of structures related to water transport infrastructure near the river. The IWAI would notify the dumping grounds before the commencement of the work. The IWAI would keep informing the state and central government on the progress of work, from time to time. The NHAI would transport the dredged material to its sites for construction of the roads. Once completed, the integrated project will bring opportunities to Assam as the state will get access to Chittagong port in Bangladesh benefiting 54 lakh people in the state involved in the water transport system, besides tourism getting a boost through improved water transport system.A water taxi service will be introduced in Guwahati this year and the World Bank has sanctioned Rs. 1000 crore for the development of Inland water transport in Assam. An expressway will be constructed along the river.

Hub & Spoke

In his last budget speech, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said: “An effective multi-modal logistics and transport sector will make our economy more competitive. A specific programme for the development of multi-modal logistics parks, together with multi-modal transport facilities, will be drawn up and implemented.”

Gadkari has now drawn a plan that aims to shift from India’s current point-to-point logistics model to a hub-and-spoke model. This will entail setting up 35 multi-modal logistics parks at a cost of Rs 50,000 crore, developing 50 economic corridors and inviting investments from the states and private sector.

Crucially, this will all be done with an integrated approach that will utilise railways, highways, inland waterways and airports to create a transportation grid that covers the country.

Tunnel Effect

The 9.2 km-long road tunnel that was started by the previous UPA regime in 2011 and completed this year. It bores through the belly of the lower Himalayas between Chenani in Udhampur district and Nashri in Ramban district that was dedicated to the nation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi this month, is not only longest road tunnel in India. It is an achievement of engineering that incorporates India’s first fully integrated mechanism to externally control everything from the movement of vehicles to the inflow and outflow of air, and even the evacuation of passengers or vehicles in distress. For the first time since the construction of the 2.5 km long Jawahar Tunnel in 1954, intense tunnelling is taking place in the young Himalayan Mountains, testing the skills and the capacity of road construction engineers in India.

Chenani-Nashri tunnel is one of the 12 big and small tunnels that are part the Jammu-Srinagar highway four-lane project and are at various stages. Of these, four tunnels—adding 1.5 km-- and passing through Nandini Wildlife area of Jammu were opened to public last year. Excavation of the 8.5 km Banihal-Qazigund tunnel is near completion and work on another six tunnels in Ramban-Banihal section is in full swing.

Contract for another 14.08 km Zoji La pass tunnel in Leh region of J&K has been awarded and work has started this year. The construction of the 8.8 km Rohtang Tunnel, that will also provide all-year road connectivity to Lahaul and Spiti Valley, will be completed by 2019.

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