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Our way or the highway
Ignoring long-term benefits, state asks NHAI to pay for land for roads

Ranchi, Nov. 10: Jharkhand does not want to give government land for free for building national highways, asking the Centre to pay for the “commercial venture”, thereby ignoring the social and economic benefits that accrue to a community once transportation networks between towns and cities are strengthened.

Land reforms and revenue minister Mathura Prasad Mahto’s contention is that National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) builds roads under BOT (build-operate-transfer) and collects toll tax from vehicles.

“This is a commercial venture. Hence, the NHAI should pay us for government land transferred to it for highway construction,” he said, sparking off a development vs cost debate in the state led by chief minister Arjun Munda who has earmarked a whopping Rs 1,700 crore to develop and strengthen roads in the current fiscal.

Mahto, perhaps unwittingly, also exposed the state’s double-standards on the question of land for roads as it has always been ready to transfer gair mazrua (government) land for free whenever the state road construction department is working on a project.

The issue cropped up when the land reforms and revenue department received a letter from the NHAI, under Union ministry of road transport and highways, requesting transfer of around 40 hectare of gair mazrua land for widening (to four lanes ) the Ranchi-Hazaribagh road, which is nearly complete.

Mahto, in fact, convened a meeting at Project Building with NHAI on November 3. But no decision could be arrived at as a junior official of NHAI, manager M.K. Pandey, attended it.Pandey has now been asked to collect highway policies prevalent in other states and submit them before the Jharkhand government by November 18.

Special secretary in the land reforms and revenue department A.K. Rastogi said it was the state government’s policy not to provide gair mazrua land free of cost for a commercial venture. “We transfer such land free of cost for roads constructed by the state road construction department,” he pointed out.

By implication, all roads were not equal for Jharkhand.

“The NHAI issue has come up for the first time. So, we have sought details of policies prevailing in other states and will place the NHAI land proposal before the cabinet for a decision,” the special secretary added.

He said that Ranchi-Jamshedpur and Barhi-Hazaribagh roads, which were under the state road construction department three years ago, were transferred to the NHAI as they became part of national highway projects.

NHAI officials, on the other hand, claimed the state had committed to provide government land free of cost for national highways coming up in Jharkhand at a meeting with then surface transport minister on June 24, 2008.

V.K. Sharma, NHAI chief general manager (land acquisition), told The Telegraph from New Delhi that most states had transferred government land free of cost for NHAI projects.

“But we received objections from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and now Jharkhand. We feel national highways bring social and economic uplift to the state. So, the state government should have no objection in providing gair mazrua land for free,” he pointed out.

Sharma, however, said the objection would have no impact on the progress of the roads as it was “just a question of paying or not paying” the price for the state land.

“It may be the policy of the state government. So, we will try to resolve it through dialogue,” he added.

NHAI (Jharkhand) project director Awadhesh Kumar said the dispute arose when they sent a proposal to their New Delhi headquarters to pay for state government land acquired to widen the Ranchi-Hazaribagh road.

“In fact, gair mazrua land happens to be a minor portion of the total landmass acquired for the project. It is around 10 per cent of 420 hectare acquired for four-laning of Ranchi-Hazaribagh road,” he said.

But, he admitted the implications of a deadlock were overarching. “We will face similar problems on Ranchi-Jamshedpur and Barhi-Hazaribagh stretches of NH-33.”

Harishwar Dayal, the regional director of Institute of Human Development, a Delhi-based NGO, said the Jharkhand government’s stand would definitely delay the implementation of the project and escalate costs.

“The state government won’t get much money from NHAI,” he said, though he added that “guesstimations” did not help. “But since the road ushers economic and social development, the state should think on transferring land free of cost for long-term benefits,” he maintained.

He stressed the ArjunMunda government believed roads were the backbone of progress. “The state has allocated Rs 1,700 crore to develop roads during the current fiscal.”

Poor road connectivity has harmed Jharkhand in many ways — from hiking freight cost to strengthening Naxalism — in the 12 years of its inception.

A strong road network gives people and places access to opportunities, as developed India’s states will vouch for.

But constructing roads is already tricky business, as NHAI knows well. Local people need to be consulted, forest and agricultural land spared as much as humanly possible and tree felling reduced. Protests often disrupt construction, escalating costs.

Perhaps, out of consideration for NHAI and its own imminent gains, Jharkhand ministers should reflect if insisting on a few crores is worth blocking the highways.


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