Amid repeated incidents of damage to national highways due to poor construction quality, Union Road Transport and Highways Secretary Giridhar Aramane on Wednesday issued a stern warning to highway operators, with an ultimatum to ensure safety and quality on national highways or face “severe penalties”.
Aramane said the government will no longer tolerate the “jugaadu” (makeshift work) attitude of builders.
“This jugaadu attitude even in the biggest of concessionaires is causing (us) worry,” he added.
“So what we are trying to do is punish big contractors, developers, and engineers in a very severe fashion,” Aramane said. “You will definitely see a very large number of such penalties being imposed in the coming few months. So my request is to make sure that quality is ensured in construction and maintenance of road projects.”
The secretary highlighted recent incidents like the complete destruction of a part of national highways in Himachal Pradesh, a video of which went viral on social media earlier this week, adding that he had ordered an inquiry into the damaged section between Shamlaji and Mota-Chiloda on NH-8 in Gujarat.
Addressing the highway developer and operator industry at the annual conference of Highway Operators’ Association of India, Aramane told investors that the focus on quality and design in the building phase of the highway can greatly reduce the future maintenance costs.
Aramane lamented the lack of technology adoption by highway builders and operators despite the Centre making it easier for them. According to government guidelines, contractors are allowed to use any technology, which has been approved by any safety standards organisation anywhere in the world without requiring lengthy approvals.
Despite this, Aramane said contractors are not adopting new technology like precast concrete and ultra-high performance concrete, criticising even the big players of the highways sector for being complicit in this lackadaisical approach.
He also said better technology needed to be adopted in toll collections, as outdated means such as poor cameras were defeating the whole purpose of FASTags, where the average transaction time should not be more than 20-25 seconds per vehicle.
He added that investors needed to be aware of these problems, since safety problems will cause downtime in highways and increase the risk of fall in tolling revenues, citing examples of multiple stretches that had to be ordered to shut down, where the concessionaires now generate zero toll revenue.
India has the highest number of deaths from road accidents in the world. Union minister Nitin Gadkari has said in the past that he aimed to bring road accidents down by 50 per cent in the next two years. According to the latest available figures, India saw 366,000 road accidents in 2020, causing 130,000 deaths.
Aramane told investors that they needed to understand that they were not insulated from economic growth, and they needed to play their part in building the mobility economy if they wanted their own finances to flourish, adding that a road prone to accidents will never be used by people, and operators will lose revenues.