Budget and Beyond: In next decade, road infrastructure in India will be completely transformed, says Nitin Gadkari

Nitin Gadkari says he needs more money because a lot of land needs to be acquired for ambitious Rs 7.5-lakh crore Sagarmala project

Seetha January 23, 2018 20:17:59 IST

Ahead of the Union Budget 2018, Nitin Gadkari -- Minister for Road Transport, Shipping and Water Resources -- has asked finance minister Arun Jaitley for more than Rs 25,000 crore. He’s confident he will get it. Gadkari has always said he doesn’t need money from the budget and is known to reel off, at the drop of a hat and without pausing for breath, the many off-budget revenue-raising avenues available to him. In this ‘Budget and Beyond’ interview, he does precisely that – giving out numbers about how much from monetising projects, how much from tolls etc – and also pointing out that his ministry is not depending only on government funds.

He needs more money, he says, because a lot of land needs to be acquired for the ambitious Rs 7.5 lakh crore Sagarmala project, revolving around port development and coastal shipping. Gadkari and more specifically the ministries he is in charge of are going to be the key to the Narendra Modi government's plans to up growth, generate employment and boost the rural sector. Infrastructure, after all, has huge spillover benefits.

In his two interviews over the weekend, the prime minister pointed to the stepped up progress on infrastructure projects to argue that these are generating jobs. He dwells at length on all the projects he has lined up for roads, ports and shipping, inland waterways and irrigation (including river-linking). It can leave one quite breathless: a 1,680 km waterway project on the Ganga, 40 small river ports, nine ferry services, 10 RoRo services, 30 river linking worth Rs 8 lakh crores, five of which will start in three months and two of which will “solve the water problem of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala”, Sagarmala projects in Kandla and Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust.

Budget and Beyond In next decade road infrastructure in India will be completely transformed says Nitin Gadkari

File image of Nitin Gadkari. PTI

In JNPT alone, he is expecting investment of Rs 60,000 crore and jobs for 1.25 lakh in Maharashtra. He has five targets: Create 1 crore direct and indirect jobs in his sectors alone; adding 2-3 percent to the GDP; drastic reduction in road accidents; a new express highway network (“the next decade will see a complete transformation of India’s road infrastructure, which will be of international standards”) and the push for electric vehicles.

That the pace of roads construction has increased under Gadkari is a fact that is difficult to deny. The promise of Kamal Nath – roads minister during the United Progressive Alliance government – of building 20 km of roads a day has been fulfilled under his successor. As of November 2017, the pace of construction was 22 km a day. But critics will latch on to the fact that Gadkari had promised first 30 km a day and later 40 km a day.

So is Gadkari promising more than he delivers or can deliver? He always keeps targets high, he says, to keep up pressure on everyone who has to deliver. “This year we will go up to 28 km. . . next year at any cost I will complete this target.” As for all his other claims and promises, he’s ready to be held accountable for them. Interestingly, the heightened activity in the roads sector comes even though the five or six large companies are still to come out of the financial problems they had gotten into and their presence is still subdued.

There are, Gadkari says, a whole lot of smaller players who have come into the sector because technical and financial qualifications have been eased. There is, he says, far more competition in the sector, besides greater transparency and a focus on quality. What he would like, however, is for banks to erase the bad days of the roads sector from their memories and start funding the sector more. Financial closure of projects still takes over a year and this delays the projects. They perhaps owe one to him – after all, he has been able to unclog almost all 400-odd stalled projects he inherited in 2014. “I saved Indian banking from NPAs of Rs 3 lakh crores.”

What, then, about concerns that aggressive bidding by these smaller players will again lead the sector into crisis? It was not aggressive bidding that was responsible, he explains, but the fact that the private sector had to bear much of the risk – land acquisition, removal of utilities, sovereign clearances etc. That’s not the case any more – projects are taken up for bidding only after 80 percent land acquisition is completed, shifting of utilities is taken care of and all environmental and forest clearances have been taken.

Speaking to ‘Budget and Beyond’, agriculture economist Ashok Gulati had pointed out that only 10 of the 99 projects scheduled for 2019 have been completed. Gadkari says that is not quite the right picture – work on these are going on a war footing and he is confident that all 99 will be completed by end of 2019. In the irrigation projects, there’s an innovation – the water will be taken to the fields through a pipe, instead of a canal. This will save the cost of land acquisition. What’s more this water will be distributed through drip irrigation. “This will double productivity of agriculture.”

But is Gadkari’s aggressiveness a bit misplaced when it comes to his push for electric vehicles – after all industry is not quite ready and there are issues like charging points as well as amendments in the Electricity Act that will be needed. “These are all theoretical problems,” he says, pointing out that Maharashtra was not hampered by them. Electricity and alternative fuels is the way of the future and bio-fuels will have a huge beneficial impact on the rural sector. Of the Rs 7 lakh crore oil import bill, if a saving of even Rs 2 lakh crore goes to the rural sector, he points out, it will create crores of jobs. These are not tall claims, he insists: “I am not selling dreams to the people of India. I don’t want to only show dreams – I want to fulfil them.”

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