Special Issue
Taking a ‘quality’ leap
Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways R P N Singh is working on a clear agenda — to ensure time-bound quality construction of roads and highways across the country. In an interview with Renu Mittal, he talks about his plans to take this agenda forward.

Q: You are a first time Mantri. How are you enjoying the work?

A: To be very honest, it has been a whirlwind entry into this ministry, because the moment we took over, the Parliament began and we were inundated with unstarred and starred questions. Answering those unstarred and starred questions actually helps you in understanding your ministry in a very deep way.

But I have been fortunate in the way that I have a very experienced Cabinet Minister with whom I have the opportunity to work and who has worked in many capacities in the government. He works at a very hectic pace. So I have been an observer, watched him and learnt. What I would have learnt in one year, I have managed to learn in three or four months. In these two months, what I have learnt would I would have taken on my own a year or more to learn, Actually, the Prime Minister has put this on priority basis and we are trying to live up to his expectations of providing better roads and highways for this country. In fact, (it is not a comparison, nor is it meant to put down what the previous government has done), what the NDA government made in five years, our aim is to make (the same amount of) roads during this year alone. So you can imagine the quantum jump our ministry is going to take.

The Prime Minister has spoken of a 100-day agenda for most Ministries. Now, you are in the crucial Infrastructure Ministry. What exactly are the contours of this 100-day agenda that you are now moving towards?

We have come up with the policy that we are going to make 20 kms (of roads) per day. And in those hundred days, we are going to make 12,000 kms within this year. We have made a work plan for that.

For such a big endeavour you need a huge amount of money and for this we are doing road shows. My Cabinet colleague has been to Singapore and is in Zurich now. He is going to other parts of the world to raise funds for this endeavour, and we are very hopeful that this will go through and that 20 km per day does not remain a dream but turns into reality.

Is it a practical proposition?

You need to do things and it is a possibility. If it were not a possibility, then we would have not set those kinds of targets. It is a target which you cannot begin doing from, let’s say, in the next hundred days, but it’s a target which we think is achievable in the next year.

The recent Metro accident has shown us that there is a need for independent verification of potential conflict of interest with regard to design. If design and construction are handled by the same agencies, it can lead to a lot of problems. Is your Ministry now looking at this aspect of having independent verification?

For every project, we have supervisory consultants who are different from the concessionaires or the contractors. The supervisory consultants look into each project and we just had a meeting of all the concessionaires in a few states to see the progress. There is a government person from our department, who is an engineer, then there is the contractor or concessionaire, and there is a third party which is an independent supervisory consultant.

So, we actually have two other people besides the contractor as well as the concessionaire, who look into the building of the road.

The system has been in place for some time, but despite that we find roads caving in.
We have passed very strict instructions (about the kind of work that is to be done). In fact, we are going to be looking and inspecting the roads ourselves. I went to South India and had a look at the roads there also. Since Parliament is not in session now, we are going to do a lot of travelling within the country to see where these projects are being (carried out).

  We have come up with the policy that we are going to make 20 kms (of roads) per day. And in those hundred days,we are going to make 12,000 kms within this year.We have made a work plan for that.

What about the National Highways and the State Highways? We find that state governments, which are supposed to be responsible for State Highways, palm off these highways as National Highways, and (misuse) the funds that come in.

No. There are certain sections of the National Highways we look after directly. There are some parts of the roads for whose upkeep we give the money to the PWD. By PWD (I mean) the State PWD. So the roads which are taken care of by us, I don’t think there is any problem there.

Yes, there might be some complaints about the State PWD. You have to remember that the basic problem comes in because of the repair of the roads. Not the National Highways but the other roads where there is actually a shortage of funds. For example, for repair of roads, there is a demand of over Rs 2,000 crores. But the Planning Commission or the Finance Ministry has only given us Rs 1,000 crores. So we have to (allocate funds) per se to roads which have immediate need and which have to be prioritised first.

So there is a shortage of funds, as far as repairs go, and I think we try to maintain roads which are in a workable condition and our thrust is on that. You are from Uttar Pradesh. Are you going to be focusing now on UP as a high-priority area?

We find highways are sadly lacking in the state. I came up with a special proposal for hundred days in Uttar Pradesh, where we targeted three or four roads which are very essential to different parts of the state. And we are happy that we are managing to follow the principles of the hundred-day proposal.

Basically, my Ministry is implementing 29 projects in Uttar Pradesh, of which we are very hopeful (they are doing cost overruns and there have been major problems in land acquisition. Still, regardless of that, by the next year), we are going to complete 20 projects, which itself would be a major impetus to road development in Uttar Pradesh. We are privatising backward regions in UP to develop roads and see how roads can reach these backward regions. So, yes, we are going to be putting focus on Uttar Pradesh.

In fact, I passed an order saying all Project Directors of all road development have to give me their work sheets on what progress they have made on the first day of the month. I am personally monitoring these things. And I hope and am sure that it is going to happen fast.

I’m sure people from Uttar Pradesh would be very happy, they have a minister from their state who is personally monitoring what’s been happening in the state. It has been long-pending.

The focus has been there, but there have been a lot of problems and factors. But we are happy that at least 20 projects will be completed in the next year.

For every project, we have supervisory
consultants who are different from the concessionaires or the contractors.

What about corporates? Are you planning to bring private sector into it? Because, after all, the government has limited funds.

We are going in for all these road shows. You will be surprised to know that all the roads that have been built on the BOT/MOT toll programme, only 9 per cent of the money for roads and highways is coming in from the private sector.

We will definitely try to increase that spending, and we are trying to get in money from the private sector also on a larger scale, according to the PPP model, so that more and more companies come in and we have a larger say in things. So we want to bring in the PPP model and want larger players — we need all kinds of players to come in and build roads. In fact, we have come up with a lot of BOT projects that are coming through.
Any particular incentives you are offering to attract them to come and be a part of your enterprises?

A BOT Toll policy makes it favourable and profitable to them also to come under BOT Toll projects. If it were not profitable to them, why would they invest? They are coming for the business aspect of it and we want to give good quality roads at reasonable rates to the people of India.

Are the road shows working?

They have just started, and I think we are already getting some good responses. We need Rs one lakh crore to make those 12,000 kms this year. So that is not a small amount — it is $20 billion. We hope to be able raise that kind of financing for the roads in this country.

There is an international system of accreditation of inspection bodies. Not only on site but in areas and processes as well. The Quality Council of India is the national agency responsible for the accreditation system. It has recently announced simplified process of inspection of infrastructure projects. Are you looking into it?
I think that the department is very responsive to demands and we have regular (inspection) from the NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) to see the quality of work. In fact, they have Project Directors based in all these projects, who interact with the contractors and see that they follow the specifications. So, as far as quality control is concerned, we are getting that done.

  They have just started, and I think we are already getting
some good responses.We need Rs one lakh crore to make those 12,000 kms this year. So that is not a small amount — it is $20 billion.

That is a huge area of concern. Maybe there is not enough penalisation of those who are not adhering to quality.

No. In fact we have terminated a lot of contracts also. I know it is not a very good thing to do but we have taken very strict action. We have not only terminated contracts, but we have also blacklisted them so that they cannot apply again. We have issued notices to some contractors.

So, that is an ongoing process. We have actually terminated many projects and that has led to the delay in the (completion) of the projects. So we have taken action in cases where we have found (discrepancies) and will continue to do so.

Internationally, we find there is satellite monitoring on highways. Are you also looking into it?

I do not know about satellite monitoring. You have taken me (by surprise). I don’t think we will be looking at it that way, but if there is a way of doing it, why not? We should do it.