NA, August 05, 2014

By Pradeep S Mehta

Look before leaping ? Laws governing land acquisition, environmental clearances and the

modalities of PPP will have to be looked into again to make this ambitious road project a success

It is a no-brainer that roads lead to development and the thrust of the Rajasthan government to build more of them is more than welcome. In her budget speech, chief minister Vasundhara Raje quoted the noted US President John Kennedy’s saying: “America is great because of her roads”.

In a recent cabinet meeting in Bikaner it was announced that 20,000 kms roads will be developed over four years at the rate of 5,000 kms every year. The government will also build link roads from villages and major tourist places to connect with the state highways network. Thrust on the rural road network is crucial and we have witnessed focused attention in the past through the Pradhan Mantri and Mukhya Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojnas, but much more needs to be done.

It is the local rural roads that provide the critical value-enhancing link, as a product moves up the value chain from the farm to the market. Much of our horticultural produce just wastes away without the ability to move it to processing centres. Accessibility of citizens to nearest towns, markets, health facilities etc are essential to help the economy and society. For example, many a time people have died due to lack of swift access to medical facilities from remote areas.

There are various dimensions to this project, which are laid out for deeper consideration by the policy makers. First, the issue of land acquisition and environmental clearances, and much of the proposed road network will face these problems. Unless the current draconian land acquisition law is amended it will be a huge problem. Whether the Central government does it or not, the state can do it as they are amending the labour laws. Fortunately, for environment clearances linear projects like roads, gas or water or electricity transmission lines face lesser hassles than factories etc. And such an amendment will have spill over effects for manufacturing also, which is essential if new means of livelihood have to be created.

The second issue is that of funding. The approach sought is to build it on a PPP basis, and to establish a road regulator to oversee the functioning. Rajasthan can take on board the sad experiences of the Government of India to avoid the pitfalls. Many of our highway projects have been abandoned by the developers due to various reasons, one of which is the environmental and forest clearance. What Rajasthan should do is to float special purpose vehicles to get all the clearances and then sell the equity of the company to a private developer at a premium. However, transparency will need to be ensured so that crony capitalism does not infest the process.

Furthermore, the design of roads should be made in a manner that it serves the wider public interest. We should not land up in situations like the ill designed flyover at the Station Crossing in Jaipur where the flyover has been built from MI Road to the railway station, rather than curving into Sawai Jaisingh Highway, which has much higher volume of traffic. One cannot restore the eggs, as the omelette has already been made.

The third issue is of road safety. Such conditions will need to be built into the contracts that the developer will have to ensure standards of highest safety to pedestrians, cyclists and slow moving traffic. It should also provide standing facilities to provide succour to accident victims who die in the platinum hour. One is glad to hear that the state government is already planning a big thrust on road safety with an allocation of funds worth Rs100 crore, which will also include carrying out third party audits of the existing road network. Such audits will reveal imperfections and enable the state government to carry out the rectifications, to the best extent possible.

The fourth issue is that of intra and inter-state road transport, where a state monopoly has been flourishing. In its early months of coming into power the state government had announced a policy to liberalise road transport by allowing private sector to operate on long distances. It is long overdue. The neighbouring MP government has scrapped its state road transport corporation, and opened up regulated transport in the state with transparent bids to award routes etc. Oversight of their operations can be strengthened, but yet there are good learnings which the state government could look into.

The Motor Vehicles Act which governs both road transport and road safety will need to be tweaked at the state level to allow smooth implementation of measures to promote both private participation and road safety. The law is under amendment to strengthen the road safety dimension but that has been on the drawing board for a long time.

It would make great sense if the state government drafts a comprehensive policy for roads, transport and road safety, and establishes one composite independent regulator to deal with all the three dimensions under one roof. Such a move will ensure coherence rather than face turf issues with different agencies governing the three different aspects of smoother and safer transportation to the citizens of the state. Such a regulator will be insulated from different line ministries and thus can be more effective.

The writer is Secretary General, CUTS International (views expressed are his own)

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