For user-friendly highways

Print edition : February 24, 2006

Interview with Santosh Nautiyal, Chairman, National Highways Authority of India.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is implementing a mammoth infrastructure construction project and taking steps to ensure that roads are maintained well.

The person at the helm overseeing this operation is Santosh Nautiyal, Managing Director of the NHAI. In this interview to Mamuni Das he talks about the various activities that the organisation is undertaking. Excerpts:

What is the NHAI doing to maintain roads in the backdrop of problems such as overloading and signages being damaged?

The issue of overloading has to be addressed by the enforcement staff of State governments under the Motor Vehicles Act. On our part, we are planning to install weigh-in-motion systems at toll plazas. These systems would ensure that all traffic is monitored while the vehicles are in motion. The system uses a series of embedded sensors to calculate the weight per axle as the vehicle drives over the sensor pad. If the vehicle is found to be overweight, a message is displayed on roadside signs directing it to report to the slow-speed weigh scales. If the vehicle is determined to be weight compliant, no message will appear on the signs and the vehicle can continue on its route.

For curbing acts of vandalism, including theft of signages, once the operations and maintenance contract (OMC) for the entire stretch is in place, regular patrolling would be done. This is likely to bring down cases of theft and damage. As of now, we generally report cases of theft to the nearest police stations and write to the State governments. Some States like Haryana have their own patrolling system in place.

New projects are going to be awarded on a design, build, finance, operate and transfer (DBFO) basis instead of build, operate and transfer (BOT). What is the advantage of DBFO?

In BOT projects, the detailed design report is prepared by the NHAI. But in DBFO, by passing on the detailed design work to the concessionaire, we expect to improve upon the design efficiency, reduce the cost of structures and save time, apart from giving the concessionaire more flexibility in terms of working out the finer details of the project in the best possible manner. We would limit ourselves to spelling out the exact requirements in terms of quality and other structures of the road and let the concessionaire innovate upon the road design.

In BOT, when the detailed design report was prepared by an external consultant, there was no incentive for the consultant to look for methods to reduce the cost by adopting innovative designs without adversely affecting the quality.

Moreover, in BOT, the project could not start before the detailed design report was in place. However, in DBFO, it is possible for the concessionaire to start the work on those stretches where not much complex design is required.

What is the status of the toll policy that the Committee of Secretaries has been working upon?

We have had some rounds of meetings and are working on the issue. A sub-committee has been formed to give recommendations. There are issues like whether the toll rate should be the same for BOT and annuity projects. What should be periodicity of revision of toll rates - - whether it should be revised every year, or once in two years or five years. What should be the extent of linkage to the wholesale price index (WPI) - if we lower the extent of linkage, should we have a longer concession period? These are issues that we hope to finalise over the next deliberations.

There have been truckers' strikes against the imposition of and the hike in toll rates. How are you tackling the issue? Are you conducting any study to find out the extent of toll that people would be willing to pay?

To start with, willingness to pay is a relative concept and different people would agree for different levels of payments. In fact, given a choice, everybody would like to pay the minimal amount or, rather, not pay at all.

But, in this backdrop, we plan to launch an awareness campaign to explain to the people the need to pay the toll and how it helps improve the quality of roads, giving them a better road use experience. Moreover, we also plan to automate them so that people end up spending less time at toll plazas. We are conducting a study on the issue.

How are you planning to go about the automation of toll plazas?

We are inviting bids. Once automated, there would be lanes where road-users can drive past using an on board unit in the vehicles and the requisite toll would be deducted automatically. There would also be provision for smart-card lanes, where road-users can swipe a smart card to pay the toll. We would be inviting bids for 14 toll plazas in select National Highway stretches and for the Ahmedabad-Vadodara expressway in the first phase. All the stretches are public-funded ones. We have selected high-density stretches that have some good tolling infrastructure in place already.

Since you are opting for the toll automation in public-funded plazas initially, who would do the automation in BOT projects?

We are considering the options. One option is to pass on the specifications to the concessionaire and let him put the equipment in place. The other option is to take it upon us so that the quality of equipment is maintained.

The level of participation appears to be fairly low. What are you doing to increase the participation of international players in road construction?

Well, there has been a fair degree of international participation in road projects, both from construction contractors and consultants. The participation from Malaysia and China has been on the higher side. But many international contractors are not looking for avenues outside their countries as they have enough projects going on in their own countries. The contractors from the United States, for example, have a lot of ongoing work in their own country. The participation is high from those countries where not much activity is going on at present.

Moreover, there could be some degree of reluctance (on the international contractor's part) since in road building projects the interface with local population and government bodies is high and they might not be comfortable with it.

The size of projects may be another consideration for them. These project sizes could be seen as small by contractors [from abroad]. But we expect that the degree of international participation would be higher in expressways. This is because these new contracts would involve more design innovation and complex engineering projects might interest them.

What is the NHAI doing on the wayside amenities front?

We have already awarded two wayside amenities projects to Reliance on the Vadodara-Mumbai expressway. We plan to auction another 11-12 sites. Thus, we are inviting bids for these sites from oil companies. The land is given out on lease to them. Our proposal is to have one wayside amenity at every 50 km. Thus, the NHAI would require to develop about 100 wayside amenities. In the next phase we plan to invite more bids. The process is on for establishing, operating and maintaining wayside amenities in National Highway stretches along Chitradurga [Karnataka], Nellore and Vijayawada [Andhra Pradesh], Dhankuni [West Bengal], Krishnagiri [Tamil Nadu], Jaipur and Chittorgarh [Rajasthan].

What are the other strategies that NHAI is adopting to improve its working?

We are linking all our project implementation units, toll plazas, offices of consultants, through a wide area network [WAN]. We would like to move towards e-tendering as well. Companies such as Wipro, CMC, Datacraft are involved in the project. We are also entering into an agreement with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd to provide us the last mile connectivity.

With the WAN in place, we can track our toll collections and project implementation on a real time basis. As maintenance of roads is going to be another priority, we are also preparing the terms for the operation and maintenance contracts. The idea is to make them long-term and comprehensive in nature.

The contracts involve two kinds of maintenance - routine [that includes clearing drains, maintaining plantations and so on] and periodic [such as renewal of road surface]. We generally have short-term contracts for one to three years and for 40-50 km stretches of road. But, we had commissioned a study, and the recommendation is to award contracts for bigger stretches so that the contract size is larger and larger players get involved.

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