Our roads, their roads / How ‘national’ is the NHAI

[ Echo of India 17 July 2012 ; Hitavada 29 July 2012 ]

In the first 18 years of one’s life, if one manages to escape without getting one’s brain deeply dyed in tricolour, merely by being present and about in Delhi, one cannot but see certain things. The vision tends to be sharper if one is among those millions in the subcontinent, who after 60 years of exhortation and vilification, much to the chagrin of Delhi, are not ‘only Indian’ but continue to be Tamil, Gond, Rarhi, Naga, Bengali, Marathi and so forth. Some even continue to be just from Delhi – just ask those who have been shoved trans-Jamuna or those live in the urban ghettos of Shahjahanabad or Jamia Nagar. Indians in Delhi are unaware that on a road map of India, the Delhi urban agglomerate, officially called the ‘National Capital region’ (‘NCR’ for uppity blokes), has a very special place. It sits at the convergence of a large number of ‘National Highways’ – the densest convergence by far. The density of National Highways is far out of proportion when one considers economic output or population. In a proportional sense, the Indian in Delhi has access to a far higher number of National Highways than their numbers or economic output would command. This throws to the wind all ideas of federalism and distributive justice. The Delhi National Highway ‘node’ is like a Pamir knot on the road-map of the Indian Union, except for the fact that this one is not natural. The rest of the union paid for it and continue to pay for it.

One might see such Pamir knots around other cities like Kolkata and Hyderabad too, but there is a difference. If one looks closely, for these cities, most of the highways that make their knot are state highways, that is, not fully funded by Union government funds. Compare this with Delhi and the difference becomes very clear. This is where the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) enters the scene. What is the NHAI? The powers to be tell us “The National Highways Authority of India was constituted by an act of Parliament, the National Highways Authority of India Act, 1988. It is responsible for the development, maintenance and management of National Highways entrusted to it and for matters connected or incidental thereto. The Authority was operationalized in February, 1995 with the appointment of full time Chairman and other Members.” It also tells us that its vision is “to meet the nation’s need for the provision and maintenance of National Highways network to global standards and to meet user’s expectations in the most time bound and cost effective manner, within the strategic policy framework set by the Government of India and thus promote economic well being and quality of life of the people.” It is headquartered in – surprise, surprise – New Delhi.

Roads are arguably the most important component of infrastructure development in these times. Hence the maintenance of the National Highway network in keeping with ‘global standards’ should indeed be a priority. In the last few days a series of apparently disconnected events concerning the NHAI and roads show the geographical priorities and the biases of such Union government establishments in its true light. Recently, the NHAI approved the widening of National Highway Number 24 into a wide 6 – line structure, which will ensure better connectivity between Delhi, Noida and Ghaziabad. The planners also have in mind the burgeoning real estate development in areas like Indirapuram which have developed alongside the NH 24. Again, quite recently, the NHAI swung into action to unclog the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway and also resolve disputes around running it. The proactive stance by the NHAI in securing the clear alignment of the Delhi-Jaipur expressway also shows what such bodies are capable of when Delhi is associated. The amount of micromanagement, eye for details, the agile action, level of maintenance that the National Highways around Delhi have will almost make one think that the Union of India indeed delivers on its word – a ‘global standard’ highway network. If only the NHAI and other Delhi-centric federal government bodies would treat other parts of the Union with the same care and diligence.

The chief minister of West Bengal ( Paschimbanga) Mamata Banerjee on her recent visit to the northern part of the state pointed out the dilapidated conditions in which the  NH 34 and NH 31 exist. The utter disrepair of these ‘national’ highways in West Bengal compared to the snazzy ‘national highways’ around Delhi give away the game. Some highways are national, but some are more national than others. And it is not only Bengal. While the NHAI has decided against raising highway tolls in the Delhi Gurgaon sector, it cites Union Ministry of Road and Transport norms to do annual hikes elsewhere. The people not in the charmed circle of Delhi-centric subsidy do not take it lying down either – as the proposed protests around the NHAI owned Vallarpadam-Kalamassery Road proposed toll hike shows.

An analysis of the amount of NHAI owned roads in the 2 provinces surrounding Delhi – Haryana and Uttar Pradesh- throws up something interesting. Ostensibly roads cover land and connect people. So states with bigger geographical areas ought to have larger stretches of such highways, when other things are comparable. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan -all larger than Uttar Pradesh in area, have lesser amount of National Highways than the Delhi adjoining UP. Similarly for Haryana, it has longer stretches of National Highways than Punjab (larger than Haryana) and Kerala (only slightly smaller than Haryana).

Such things beg the question – who funds the NHAI? The people of the Indian Union do – through buying NHAI bonds and by submitting to taxation of their income, services, businesses and natural resources to the government at Delhi. By what logic is such distributive injustice maintained when Delhi does not pay for itself. The people of the union need to be vigilant and audit road schemes by Delhi centric planners inch by inch. After all, a very small portion of the Indian Union’s population has real estate interest in Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida.

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Filed under Delhi Durbar, Democracy, India

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