Roads are the arteries of development, and the Narendra Modi government is building them at one of the fastest speeds ever seen in the Northeast. With many of them near completion, the roads will bring trade and access parity in the Northeast. And it signals something greater––actual work towards inclusion of the Northeast and not just the Nehru government’s single agenda of drawing borders to keep China out.
The pace earlier was a kilometre a day and it has now been spiked to building 37 kilometres a day by the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL). Projects that used to be extended for years are now fully or 90 percent done much before the deadline. The figures are available for everyone to see on regular tracking websites hosted by other departments and not just the Union Ministry for Road, Transport and Highways.
The UPA government was great at signing agreements and MoUs but slow and incompetent at execution. The greatest sloth of the UPA, the Congress party, was its lead but had no political will, instead perpetuating a corrupt and inefficient system of executing projects. People in the Northeast paid dearly for this action-less governance. And it is not just departmental execution but a bias in development that has choked the arteries of progress from pumping blood into the Northeast.
A current map will show that a road cutting across the Northeast is called AH1 or Asian Highway 1. In some places, it narrows down to a single lane for both sides of the traffic. The UPA turned the designation of this highway to AH1 into a joke, but a very poor one, made at the expense of the residents of the Northeast.
These poor roads have substantially alienated the Northeast from the rest of the country. In Manipur, there are more domestic-use products from Myanmar than India, even items such as mosquito-repelling coils, which may seem small but are essential, soaps and other essential goods that do not make it to the Northeast because of the huge transport cost involved. Assam was as far as it got, through the heavily-subsidized railways and some of the crowded highways. Beyond that, it would be difficult for trucks to venture. They were reluctant to travel on the poor roads for fear of damage to their vehicles and also the subsequent maintenance costs.
Cargo to Tripura depended entirely on railways. Silchar is less than 300 km from Agartala but used to take 12 hours and was a mini-expedition. People wasted an entire day for the journey and then half of another to recuperate from the potholes and bumps.
Residents of many villages and towns in the Northeast could not access healthcare because it meant traveling for hours, because in the Northeast, travel is measured in hours and not kilometres. Only a few key roads built for security forces were crowded upon by all, hampering both civilians and the security work. But those too remain in a constant state of disrepair for years. Take another example: the highway between two important capitals Imphal and Kohima. It used to take up to 7-8 hours to cover less than 150 km of road.
As a strong believer in democracy and placing the needs of all Indian citizens first, Narendra Modi did not flinch when faced with the massive backlog of projects for the Northeast. An efficient system was created by the prime minister and his cabinet minister Nitin Gadkari, building real bridges between departments and setting realistic targets instead of pandering to optics. And in some cases, the result has greatly exceeded expectations and is available for all to see.
In 2014, they created NHIDCL as a SPV for development and the following year made it a nodal authority for all infra projects in the NE. It has a top priority to construct and expand infrastructure projects in the Northeast.
The way that both Narendra Modi and Nitin Gadkari work is well-known. Narendra Modi brought vision and a grand scale to the projects. He built a roadmap by which infrastructure projects would be delivered in phases beginning with key highways with good planning, minimum wastage of resources and maximum competence. Gadkari has built a no-nonsense department from the start, giving an opportunity to slackers to shift out instead of holding up progress. Those who point out problems are also expected to troubleshoot and come up with solutions.
The work of building, broadening and extending roads has been delivered by the same set of officers and contractors that every government in India has access to. The BJP-led central government has not imported officers, contractors and workers nor is it using bottled jinns to get work done.
The connection between Silchar in Assam and Agartala in Tripura has now been cut down to seven hours from 12-13. The distance between Imphal and Nagaland has been cut down to less than four hours. A stretch in the Nagaland state remains but now there is a belief amongst people that it will be delivered, and fast.
NHIDCL has ongoing projects of Rs 92,000 crore for a total of 5,313 km of which around Rs 70,000 crore is to widen around 4,300 km of roads in the Northeast on which traffic has been saturated for long. It is not just being widened but roads are being built to make them last. From the entire project cost of Rs 92,000 crore, it will cost NHIDCL a sixth to undo the damage of the UPA. This means rehabilitating 670 km of national highways that the UPA government left in disrepair for several years and which will alone cost Rs 1,455 crore.
The NHIDCL has a transparent tendering process and monitors the projects in real time. While it understands the difficulties in some of the areas, the road transport and highways ministry have a zero-tolerance policy for slackers. In the last one year, it has terminated contracts where the work was poor or delayed. A contractor won an award to install road safety measures along NH-40 in Meghalaya between Shillong and Dawki with a deadline of 90 days. With 12 days to go, the contractor had not even begun the work, and after warnings, it tried to pass off an incompetent job as completed, and eventually the contract was terminated.
The contract to another company which won the tender for road signages in Manipur was also similarly terminated since it had not begun the work close to the date of completion. A deputy general manager went AWOL for a substantial period and his employment was terminated and he was blacklisted from further employment with the NHIDCL. There are scores of cases where the NHIDCL has debarred or blacklisted lax contractors.
Apart from the Rs 70,000 crore worth of ongoing projects, there is another Rs 1,20,000 crore worth of projects which are in the detailed project report (DPR) stage. It is tremendous work to undo the damages of the past and rebuild as well, but it is being done. There is now a new paradigm shift on this front in the entire northeastern region.
Mmhonlumo Kikon is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national spokesperson and member of the Nagaland Legislative Assembly.
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