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Naxalite threat holds up highways

New Delhi, March 14: Tuesday’s ambush on CRPF personnel in Chhattisgarh occurred on a highway on which widening work has been going on for a while, dealing a blow to the already tardy pace of road building in Maoist-hit areas.

Work to widen the one-laned NH-221 into two lanes had begun in May 2010 and was scheduled for completion in two years. But that deadline was not met and many more have been missed since.

Nearly four years later, about 30 per cent work on the 329km highway — it connects Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh to Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh — is pending. The entire unfinished section falls in Chhattisgarh.

The Maoists who attacked the CRPF road-opening party also burnt two truckloads of bitumen mix meant for construction. This is not a stray incident. According to road ministry records, the Naxalites have burnt equipment and trucks at least six times in the last four years.

For the first time in 2009, the Centre had drafted a road requirement plan for 34 districts identified as Maoist-affected across eight states. Of these, Chhattisgarh has emerged the worst performer till March 1, 2014, completing only 673km of the sanctioned 2019km — about 33 per cent of the target.

Each Maoist attack in the area is followed by a lull in construction activity. “Usually after such an incident, labourers flee the site or have to be offered higher salaries to stay put. And each time a truck is burnt, it is a big financial blow to the contractor and he takes time to recover from it,” said an engineer monitoring the projects.

Besides, construction in Maoist-hit areas is a logistical nightmare for contractors. “The number of working hours are limited, no work can be done after sundown. Every day, because of the threat, machinery and material have to be ferried to a safer location, maybe a nearby camp or a police station,” the engineer added.

Also, there are no takers for at least 500km of sanctioned road projects in Chhattisgarh despite tenders being floated many times. Last month, the road ministry agreed to the state’s proposal that the projects should be split into smaller ones.

“We have decided that one project package could be as small as 2km. So, a road project of 40km can be split into 20 projects,” a road ministry official said.

Independent quality monitors are expected to keep tabs on such projects. No new project has been sanctioned under the new scheme since the election code of conduct kicked in on March 5.