By Rabia Mohamed Ismail Abdul Rahim, NUALS, Kochi.

One of the major drawbacks of our Incredible India’s infrastructure is the poor quality of roads. But that is about to change! On the 24th of October, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari announced an umbrella programme for roads, The Bharat Mala Project. The programme is scheduled to hit the ground soon, ending all existing highway projects, including the flagship NHDP, in six months, as it has also been ratified by the Public Investment Board.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government aims to build 83,677 km of roads which will receive an investment of Rs 6.92 crores in the next five years, according to reports. Bharat Mala is one of the projects to realize this end.

Being the second largest highway construction plan in the country (first being the NHDP, under which almost 50,000 km or highway roads were targeted across the country), the first phase of Bharat Mala seeks to complete 24,800 km, apart from 10,000 km of the National Highways Development Programme.

The Bharat Mala Project comprises of different components which include the construction of national highways through coastal/border areas, ports, backward areas, religious and tourist sites, border and coastal connectivity covering 7,000 kms of National Highways at an estimated cost of Rs 80,000 crore; construction, strengthening and widening of approximately 1,500 major bridges and 200 Railway Over Bridges (ROBs)/Railway Under Bridges (RUBs) on national highways; improvement of the newly declared National Highways providing better connectivity to district headquarters; improving connectivity to Char Dham, i.e., the pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri & Gangotri in Uttarakhand; enhancing freight traffic along the identified 44 economic (freight) corridors, inter-corridors and feeder-routes for development (the corridors include, among others, Mumbai-Kochi-Kanyakumari, Bengaluru-Mangaluru, Hyderabad-Panaji and Sambalpur-Ranchi), upgrading roads with dividers, pedestrian ways, underpasses, and installation of signalling and lighting systems and usage of Border Roads Organization (BRO) services to build roads on rougher terrain.

The Bharat Mala Project aims to connect district headquarters to roads by developing a network of roads which can connect border areas to main highways. The Project also aims to connect tribal and rural areas.

Bharat Mala Project will start in Gujarat and Rajasthan, followed by Punjab and subsequently traverse the Himalayan belt through Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur (next to the Indo-Burmese border) and then to Mizoram. North-eastern states have been given special focus in the project and international trade is a key aspect as well.

The Government will be funding this project through market borrowings, central road funds, monetising government-owned road assets, and budgetary allocation. Rs 2.09 lakh crore will come from market borrowing, Rs 1.06 lakh crore is expected to come through private investment and Rs 2.19 lakh crore will flow from the accruals of central road fund and through toll operate transfer model. The entire programme will be transparent, corruption-free with full emphasis on quality. According to Gadkari, each and every task will be done through electronic tenders and the quality of highways would be such that they would see no potholes for the next 100 years. This is a comprehensive scheme, with concrete funding plans, giving new body and shape to an ambitious infrastructure programme by bringing all aspects under one umbrella. It puts the capex in the roads sector very near the annual capex for the railways and hence, this should bring additional cheer, as typically the feeling of roads being neglected in favour of other transport modes was common.

The Project mainly entails the construction of economic corridors of 9,000 km; construction of 6,000 km of long inter corridor and feeder routes for the purpose of ensuring holistic connectivity; construction of 2,000 km of border and international connectivity roads; construction of 5,000 km of National Corridors. Efficiency improvement will be focused on along with the construction of 800 km of greenfield expressways, and also the construction of 2,000 km of coastal and port connectivity roads with a view to boost both tourism and industrial development. Further, the remaining road projects of 10,000 km under National Highways Development Project will form a part of Bharat Mala Project as well. The Government has identified new routes between economically important cities that will be 20% longer in terms of distance but take relatively less travel.

Under the Project, roads will be built along borders with Bhutan and Nepal, bottlenecks on existing Golden Quadrilateral Highway Network will be removed. Moreover, road connectivity to small industries will be ensured and manufacturing centres will be connected with national highways.

The Bharat Mala Project was announced as part of a massive Rs. 9 lakh crore package to give a fillip to the economy which also includes, Rs. 2.11 lakh crore for bank recapitalisation to revive investment as well as growth. The implementation of the Bharat Mala project will put 250 more districts on the four-lane highway map, connecting a total of 550 districts, apart from decongesting cities, connecting ports and economic corridors. The newer roads are expected to increase the speed of vehicles and decrease supply chain costs from the current average 18 per cent to six per cent. The project will optimise efficiency of movement of goods and people across the country.

The highway construction programme is aimed at pushing economic activity and generating at least 14.2 crore man-days across the country over the next five years, and subsequently 22 million jobs as a result of the increased economic activity across the country. 

Networking of identified economic corridors (so far 44 economic corridors were identified) with high quality roads is the chief feature of the Bharat Mala Project. The highway networks were identified by using the most efficient shorter route to connect high traffic origin-destination pairs. For the Bharat Mala network, the route alignments were identified after taking into account commodity-wise survey of freight movement across 600 districts.

The Government strongly believes that the Bharat Mala Project will not only modify the existing Indian infrastructure, but will along with it, bring about a drastic improvement to the safety record. The Government has in fact suggested that there will a reduction in the number of deaths on highways, at least by 50 per cent. The economic corridors would ensure that time taken for transporting goods from the manufacturing sectors is reduced.

Under the programme, several projects have been planned to decongest cities by building bypasses. It was further announced that the eastern peripheral expressway (EPE), which will take big trucks away from Delhi, will be completed over the next one-two months.

The alignment said to be allotted for corridors seeks to open new areas for development, and the road connectivity in the North-East and other Border States to facilitate international trade.

The Government has authorized the National Highways Authority of India Board (which can now undertake engineering procurement construction projects on a faster basis), the National Highway and Industrial Development Corporation (NHIDCL) and State Public Work Departments for taking up the highway projects. These organisations are expected to be given sufficient delegation of powers, in order to facilitate speedy implementation. All the projects constructed through engineering procurement construction will be monetised and will be bid out for 15 years.

It has been reported that in addition to 34,800 km under Bharat Mala, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) will, in parallel, implement the balance construction of 48,877 km roads under other current schemes with an outlay of Rs 1.57 lakh crore. This will be financed by providing Rs 97,000 crore from CRF and Rs 59,000 crore as gross budgetary support. The Ministry will be developing greenfield highways where acquiring land along existing highways will be difficult. The Government is looking at rolling out most of the projects announced by it before December, 2018.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley commented on the Project by saying that the Government has consistently increased public expenditure on infrastructure in order to boost employment and provide renewed impetus to economic growth.
Taking forward its commitment to providing more efficient transportation, the Government has de-bottlenecked the roads sector and significantly stepped up the highway development and road building programme.

However, along with the Bharat Mala Project, it will surely be a challenge to achieve a flawless road network as India owns the world’s second largest road network. India still has a lot of rural locations that are inaccessible, a factor, which in turn is directly responsible for the slow development in those areas. The development of highways and inter-corridors will not only help them connect to the urban areas easily but will also help them grow in terms of education, current affairs, business and other sectors.