Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari | Illustration: Ajay Mohanty Union minister of road transport and highways, and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME), Nitin Gadkari, came out with two major announcements last month; a vehicle scrapping
policy and record highway construction. In an interview with Megha Manchanda and Jyoti Mukul, the ever-optimistic minister shares his plans for furthering these initiatives even as he stresses on the need for green fuel and highways. Edited Excerpts:
Q. How was the record road construction achieved, considering there was a complete lockdown for two months?
Our last year’s (FY20) average was 28 km per day and when I took charge in 2014, about 12 km/day were being constructed. At that time, 403 projects worth Rs 3.85 trillion were stalled, of which we terminated 40 projects and in the remaining contracts, nearly 99 per cent were resolved through several rounds of deliberations. We faced several challenges due to Covid last year. The labour went back. Yet, we constructed 37 km per day. The US and China have built roads at a faster pace than this in the past. However, the current international statistics point out that this is a world record.
We are building 22 more expressways, including highways from Delhi to Dehradun, Haridwar and Chandigarh. These highways would reduce travel time between the NCR and these cities to two hours. They are Greenfield projects with a new alignment. We hope to achieve more than 40 km per day next year.
Q. You said the government intends to do 40 km per day this year. What needs to be done to achieve that?
We don’t have to think now, we have already thought about it. We are working very fast towards achieving that target. We have studied the issues that affected road construction in the past. The primary reason was land acquisition. The projects were awarded after 10 per cent land acquisition and the states would find it difficult to acquire the remaining land and that would in turn hamper the projects. Now, we don’t award projects till 90 per cent of the land acquisition is complete. We completed Rs 17 trillion worth of projects in the first term and currently Rs nine trillion worth of contracts are under construction. In the next three years, India would be able to boast of an infrastructure, which would be on par with the US.
Q. After the Uttarakhand tragedy, several environmentalists raised concerns over the safety of infrastructure projects in hills. The Char Dham Highway has also been a concern. What are your views?
Environmentalists have a wrong attitude, we are also concerned about the environment. We are transplanting trees across the new highways. We have saved fuel by building better roads and with the use of Fastags. As far as Chardham is concerned, there are 55 projects of which 25 projects have been completed, 15 will be done in the next six months and the 15 which are stuck include the ones in Joshimath area. The matter is with the Supreme Court now and we are awaiting the decision.
Q. There have been some differences between the road ministry and NITI Aayog on finalizing the monetization plan for the sector? Have they been resolved?
There are no differences. Our strategy is successful and we are moving in the right direction and we will deliberate on their suggestions too, if they have any. Our toll income has gone up, last year (FY’20) it was Rs 24000 crore. Currently, some toll plazas are shut due to Covid restrictions and the ongoing farmers’ strike but even with those considerations, our toll income has increased to Rs 34,000 crore. In the next five years, it will be Rs 1.34 trillion.
Q. Is the Vehicle Scrapping Policy final and is the automobile industry ready to give incentives beyond one per cent?
We have notified the policy and it would benefit the country’s automobile industry. Our automakers export 50 per cent of what they manufacture and once the policy comes into play, which is in the next 2-3 years, we would become a Rs 10-trillion industry. Auto industry generates maximum employment and also maximum revenues for both the state and central governments. We intend to become a manufacturing hub for the world.
We have issued an advisory suggesting that vehicle makers should incentivise more. Some have assured us that they are ready to give incentives up to 5 per cent. We feel that the competition will take care of the incentive part and as far as the nudge from the government is concerned, we have issued an advisory--if one follows it, others will also follow. I have also requested the Finance Minister to give some rebate under the GST to a consumer who is scrapping an old vehicle for a new one. The proposal has to go to the GST council.
Q. Is there enough scrapping capacity in the country?
Whenever a beginning is made it is small but it slowly increases. Scrapping centres will be an industry. Whoever puts up the industry, he will have to get environment clearance. It is a concurrent subject; there will be state and central rules. It will require clearance for sound and air pollution norms.
Q. The cab aggregators had reservations about norms under the Motor Vehicles Act. Have they been resolved?
We have released guidelines but it has to be implemented by the states. The aggregators were worried about the clauses on social security so we have eased them a bit. Comprehensive and third party insurance norms have been notified. In states, they could be issues which could be resolved by them. We will facilitate it.
Q. What are the new initiatives that you are looking at in highway construction?
We want to build green highways. It takes 48 hours for trucks to reach Mumbai from Delhi but now it will take 18 hours. That much pollution would be reduced. Alongside, by working on ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, bio CNG, electric, we have brought rules so that India becomes self-reliant and there is import substitution. It will be pollution free and indigenous. We are protecting ecology and the environment by constructing roads. For bitumen, we have approved 10 per cent blending with plastic which is called modified bitumen.
On the other hand, we want to develop 1,000 contractors who can undertake transplantation of trees. We have started the process so that trees are not cut. In Dwarka Expressway, we have transplanted 12,000 trees. We are also planting and tagging trees along with the highways.
Also, we are trying to make an electric highway on the Delhi-Mumbai route with overhead cables like the railways. By doing this, we are trying to protect ecology and the environment and reduce pollution. For lithium ion batteries, we called a meeting of experts so that it can be totally manufactured in India. We are also promoting use of hydrogen. In the coming years, we not only want to construct roads but build green highways, use waste material and reduce use of steel and cement. Private sector Venkataraman from Larsen & Toubro, a retired secretary and some experts from Malaysia are part of a five-member committee which has been constituted to suggest best global technologies to reduce cost and improve quality of construction. They will have an office in NHAI.
Q. With the second wave of Covid-19, do you think lockdown should be an option?
As a minister for transport and MSME, I understand that because of Covid, lots of problems have come. Small businessmen, traders...everyone has to face these problems. Not only we but the whole world is in a problem. We need to understand the art of living with Covid-19 and take all the precautions. The economic situation is challenging but we have to win this.