GoI’s commitment to upgrading road infrastructure is evident in its budgetary allocation. In concrete terms, it’s shown in the expansion of the National Highway (NH) stock from 91,287 km on March 31, 2014, to 1.45 lakh km at the end of February 2023. A sense of the investment going into it comes from the 2021-22 expenditure of Rs 2.2 lakh crore on roads, with GoI contributing over 90%. The prioritisation and investment into roads are widely acknowledged. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that indifferent quality of the NH programme remains an unaddressed issue.
The new 118-km Bengaluru-Mysuru expressway is an example of some challenges the road building programme faces. Beginning with toll being levied when the work hadn’t entirely been completed to a stretch being inundated over the weekend after a night’s shower suggests that execution leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not just greenfield projects like this expressway that face challenges. The existing NH stock appears to suffer from underspending on maintenance. To appreciate the scale of this problem, consider how GoI is rapidly expanding its NH stock. Most of the expansion has come by reclassifying or upgrading state roads as NH. For example, GoI data showed that from 2017-18 to January 31, 2023, about 28,517 km of state roads have been brought under the NH portfolio. As NHs are India’s arterial roads, upgrades need attendant maintenance to meet the quality standard. Here, NHAI seems to have a problem.
In response to questions from a parliamentary committee, GoI officials said that the annual budgetary outlay for maintenance and repairs is only about 40% of the estimated need as per its own norms. It can’t be a case of inadequate budgetary allocation or user charges – toll collections from NHs in 2021-22 was Rs 34,743 crore. The problem seems to lie in prioritisation where the overwhelming emphasis is on expansion of NH stock. Growing this portfolio without adequate attention to quality will not enhance India’s economic competitiveness. This flaw in the roads programme needs to be addressed.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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