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Land brake on road-widening
- Bengal highway agency limits scope of study to re-laying and maintenance

Calcutta, Oct. 3: A Bengal agency has shelved plans to widen state highways after the government’s hands-off land stand cast an ambiguous cloud on its public-private partnership (PPP) policy.

The West Bengal Highway Development Corporation (WBHDC) had engaged Rites, a central engineering consultancy, to carry out a pre-feasibility study before inviting investors to maintain and develop five state highways in the PPP module. This was to be the first phase of a project to improve and develop 19 highways.

The survey, however, will not explore the requirements and opportunities for widening five highways — SH2, SH3, SH4, SH5 and SH12A — that were laid about 40 years ago, sources said.

“The agency will look into the opportunities of drafting in private investors to re-lay and strengthen the existing two-lane roads in the PPP module. The matter of widening the roads will not be explored during the study as land is not available alongside the existing roads,” a senior WBHDC official said.

The PPP policy is silent on the availability of land for projects. Such ambiguity usually gives governments room for manoeuvre on public purposes but the Bengal government’s repeated assertions that it would not acquire land for any private company have made the task of convincing investors all the more difficult.

The WBHDC, the highway development entity, decided against exploring the road-widening opportunities for now after realising it would be a Herculean task to persuade private investors to buy land directly.

“Primarily, it has been found that the existing state highways do not have excess land alongside the roads as land was acquired some 40 to 45 years ago when the concept of four-lane roads hardly existed in this part of the country,” a PWD official said.

A state official said some prospective investors feared that direct acquisition of land would push up the cost. “During informal conversations, some interested investors said they would have to spend around Rs 3 crore to develop every kilometre of the existing roads. If they need to buy land for widening the road, the investment could be around Rs 9-10 crore for each kilometre. They said it will be tough to recover the investment in a short period,” the official said.

Infrastructure experts feel that if widening of the roads is stalled, finding investors interested solely in maintaining the roads will be tough.

“The investors will pump in money only if they are sure of good returns. If the roads are not widened, the investors will be deprived of the opportunity to recover the investments on time. Once a road is widened, the traffic volume increases, which ensures returns,” a city-based infrastructure veteran said.

The volume of traffic on NH2 and NH6 has increased after the lanes were converted to four from two. “Before 2001, when NH6 was converted into a four-lane highway, about 12,000 passenger cars used to ply on the highway daily. Now more than 40,000 passenger cars ply on NH6 daily,” an official of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) said. “This is why the NHAI has decided to widen NH6 further and add two more lanes.”

A state government official said the NHAI could widen its roads because a large portion of the land was acquired some 15-20 years ago. “Only about 1,400 hectares have to be acquired. But we don’t have that option,” the state official said.

Another all-too-apparent fallout of failure to widen the state highways will be perpetual traffic snarls. “Once these roads are upgraded, more vehicles will ply on the roads, which would lead to regular traffic snarls. If the situation continues for some time, many vehicles will start avoiding the road, resulting in loss of revenue for the investors,” the expert said.

A senior official at Writers’ Buildings conceded that a similar situation unfolded on NH2 near Panagarh in Burdwan. “A stretch of 3.5km on NH2 in Panagarh could not be converted to four lanes following an agitation by landowners. As a result, regular traffic jams are taking place on that stretch. Now, many Burdwan-bound vehicles are opting for NH2B that goes to Burdwan via Bolpur, avoiding NH2,” he added.

However, PWD officials are still hopeful of drafting in private partners for road maintenance as the government, allergic to user charges, has approved collection of toll tax in the PPP module.

The infrastructure experts pointed out that if private promoters were drafted only to maintain the 19 state highways, all of which are two- lane, it will not help the state improve road connectivity and attract investments in backward areas.