Calcutta, Feb. 19: The Mamata Banerjee government will have to spend Rs 1,250 crore to widen state highways as its aversion to acquire land is coming in the way of implementing the project in the public-private partnership (PPP) mode.
“The state highways need to be widened to 7 metres and strengthened. This government proposes to undertake widening of 1,000km in the next financial year at a cost of Rs 1,250 crore,” finance minister Amit Mitra said in his budget speech on Monday.
There is little doubt that the decision to widen 1,000km of state highways will strengthen road infrastructure, but the question doing the rounds in Nabanna is whether the government could have got private investors to pump in the money.
Senior officials with knowledge of roads and infrastructure said they were shocked by the finance minister’s announcement as they believe the outgo on road widening could have been saved had the state government shown pragmatism and widened the roads up to 10 metres.
“Had the state shown a little more courage to widen the roads to 10 metres instead of 7, the project could have been taken up in the PPP module and the state could have saved the money easily,” a senior government official said.
According to finance commission guidelines, road projects can be implemented in the PPP mode only if the width of the road is 10 metres. The states are allowed to levy toll on roads that are at least 10 metres wide.
The two preconditions had earlier thrown a spanner in the state government’s original plan of implementing the project under the PPP module.
“As land had to be acquired to widen the state highways to 10 metres, the state government had dragged its feet on carrying out the project in the PPP mode. No private investor came forward as toll could not be levied. Private investors implementing road projects levy toll to recover the cost,” an official said.
Several officials said the state government’s hands-off land policy could be a hurdle in widening the highways to seven metres as well.
“The state cannot avoid acquisition as the width of the majority of the state highways is 5 metres. The government does not have much land along most stretches of these roads. So the government will have to acquire land. So if you can acquire land for widening up to seven metres, why not acquire for three more metres?” another senior official said.
The official said that with the increase in vehicles, the government might need to further widen roads in the future.
A minister in the Mamata Banerjee cabinet said the government was against forcible acquisition of land.
“It has been seen earlier that the less the quantum of land acquired, the less is the trouble because it involves lesser number of owners,” the minister said, requesting anonymity.
Officials drew attention to how land acquisition-related problems hobbled the widening of NH35, connecting Barasat and Bongaon in North 24-Parganas.
“The state government wanted to widen the highway up to 7 metres after the National Highways Authority of India called off its plan of four-laning in early 2013 because of non-availability of land. Although the state government had planned to do the widening on its own, it has not been able to start the project in the last one year because of resistance from land owners and encroachers,” an official said.
The state government, however, managed to remove encroachments standing in the way of the four-laning of an 8km stretch of NH34 between Calcutta airport and Barasat.
The official said if the government had tried to negotiate with landowners along the state highways, it could have saved the Rs 1,250 crore it would have to spend for their widening.
“This money could have been spent on various social welfare schemes of the state government,” the official said.