COVID-19 pandemic: Opportunity to accelerate growth of India’s road sector

It was 25th of March 2020 when the country was put into lockdown mode by the Hon’ble Prime Minister to contain the spread of COVID-19. Prior to the lockdown, road construction activities were booming. Highway construction in India increased at 21.44% CAGR between 2016 and 2019. During 2019-20, NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) accomplished the construction of 3,979 km of national highways. This is the highest ever highway construction achieved in a fiscal by NHAI.

However, as was expected, the entire economy felt a shock with the countrywide lockdown. Though some of the businesses managed to thrive during the lockdown period due to their inherent nature, the entire construction sector, including the road sector, came to a standstill as there was a complete ban on construction activities during the lockdown period. Exodus of migrant labours also added to the problems of the already troubled road sector.

Any problem, big or small, has to be solved by raising the bar of the level of thinking. Duke Ellington put this into words: “A problem is a chance for you to do your best”. This was echoed in the words of Hon’ble Prime Minister in his address during the 95th annual plenary session of India Chamber of Commerce on 11 June 2020. He emphasized that every Indian citizen must revolve to transform this disaster into an opportunity. And so, this pandemic can be looked at best as a chance to turn it into an opportunity to accelerate the pace of growth in the road sector.

However, it cannot be denied that there will be major financial loss for the toll operators as well as for NHAI. The revenue loss for developers/toll operators is expected to be in the range of Rs 3,450-3,700 crore during the March-June period, while for NHAI the revenue loss is estimated to be in the range of Rs 2,100-2,200 crore for this period. It is also expected that there would be a significant rise in disputes between the private sector and government agencies due to time and cost overrun. However, all these are at best termed as short term financial losses which the government is well equipped to ease out through appropriate financial measures.

If these losses are short term, then what needs to be done for long term gains?

The answer lies in the overhauling of the entire road sector. The first step in this direction has already been initiated by the Hon’ble PM. To revive the infrastructure sector, he has stressed upon the need for the shift from “command and control” to a “plug and play” model. The “plug and play” concept is one in which only implementation-ready projects having all the clearances in place would be allocated to a private player through a transparent auction process. This model ensures that the infrastructure projects don’t get stalled and later become non-performing assets (NPAs), simply due to lack of requisite clearances. This is definitely going to help the road sector where a number of clearances are required which, if not obtained well in time, would delay the entire project and result in cost overruns and other disputes. This “plug and play” model is also expected to attract significant FDI in the roads and highways sector.

The other type of overhauling that the road sector needs is adoption and implementation of new technologies. Though a list of such new technologies can be drawn, the two technologies that stand out are – pavement recycling and stabilization. With pavement recycling, the existing pavement is reused in the construction process and results in material and energy savings. Similarly, stabilizing soil and granular layers would result in improvement in the strength of the constructed pavement and ultimately result in savings of materials and energy. Also, no compromise is made on the performance of the constructed pavement.

So, this is the opportune time to shift the focus from the established conventional construction practices to these alternative technologies to reap the long-term benefits from better performing pavements.

In my view, the “plug and play” model coupled with the adoption of new construction technologies will further accelerate the growth of India’s road sector. There is no doubt that a robust road sector and superior performing roads will propel the Indian economy to a higher trajectory.

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Abhishek Mittal, Principal Scientist
Flexible Pavement Division, CSIR-CRRI
New Delhi; Email: mushimittal@gmail.com