One-man band

Union road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari is a star in the Narendra Modi government — he’s acquired a reputation for getting things done. V. Kumara Swamy and Sonia Sarkar look at his accomplishments

  • Published 4.10.15
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Nitin Gadkari loves a good line. The Union road transport and highways minister often quotes former American president John F. Kennedy to make a point about the importance of roads. "American roads are not good because America is rich," he quotes. "But America is rich because American roads are good." The golden words have been printed in bold letters and framed and hung in his office in central Delhi.

The portly minister - though not as rotund as he used to be before bariatric surgery in 2011 - peppers his speech with old Bollywood comebacks. "I'll change my name" is a favourite. He says this often, promising a name change if he can't deliver on a pledge. " Lafda nahi chalega" - mischief will not be allowed - is another oft-used phrase, warning those creating hurdles for his ministry.

But he doesn't just have a way with words. In the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, the whisper goes that the star in Delhi is not so much the Prime Minister. It is the 58-year-old Chitpavan Brahmin from Nagpur who's creating a buzz.

"I think currently, roads and highways is the only sector that is doing well in the economy," says Abhaya Agarwal, partner, infrastructure, at consultancy firm Ernst & Young.

Processes have been streamlined in Gadkari's ministry, with road building projects being awarded only after ensuring that land has been acquired and all regulatory approvals obtained. Ever since he took over as minister, foreign consultants have been roped in to carry out feasibility studies and suggest changes to existing practices. There are exit clauses for equity investors, mutual and amicable solutions to projects that are already stuck and better co-ordination among ministries. New models are being drawn up for investment in the roads sector.

"I think the last six months have seen a lot of activity from the ministry. The number of bids coming out of the highway sector are very, very large. If the ministry carries on this way, there will be a shortage of capacity," predicts Atul Punj, chairman, Punj Lloyd, the infrastructure company.

Not surprisingly, Gadkari is upbeat.

"When this government took over, about 80 projects were stalled, causing inconvenience to people (living in) the project areas," he says in an email interview. "We have resolved the bottlenecks faced by such projects and, except a few, most are back on track."

He goes on to cite figures. Projects for over 11,100km of new highways have been awarded so far - 8,000km last year. Some 6,033km of national highways were constructed out of which 4,340km were built last year. "Special emphasis is being given to backward and other regions with infrastructure deficits," he says.

How does that compare with the last government's figures? Ministry officials point out that in 2014-15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first year in office, 7,972km of highways were approved by the government versus 3,621km road projects approved by the UPA government in 2013-14. The target for the award of contracts for 2015-16 is about 10,000km. Gadkari has said that he is keen to construct around 30km a day, substantially higher than the current 10-12km a day.

What makes the former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president - said to have been handpicked for that post by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 2009 - click? Gadkari watchers stress that he is a man of action. Take the recent fracas over the issue of encroachments on land belonging to the Calcutta Port Trust (CPT). Gadkari, who is also shipping minister, says that he is now planning to raise a force to protect properties that fall under his ministry. He recently claimed that land grabbers at CPT would be "thrown out" very soon.

His officials hold that he values quick action in the road transport and highways ministry, too. "Don't play football with the files," is a line he often throws at bureaucrats who come to him with notings on files.

"He believes that once a policy is in place, we should be able to take decisions rather than going to him for approval," a senior official in the ministry says. Bureaucrats in his ministry have "a lot of freedom", he adds.

Gadkari often tells industrialists he meets that he encourages bureaucrats to take decisions - even if they go wrong. "If mistakes are bona fide, forgive them. If they are mala fide, sack them," is his refrain.

Clearly not greatly fond of protocol, officials say that the minister would rather pick up the phone to speak with a Cabinet colleague about a file than wait for it to come back through the official channel. And he doesn't mind ruffling a few feathers either.

When finance minister Arun Jaitley announced "corporatisation" of ports, Gadkari promptly stepped in, foreseeing a possible backlash from trade unions. "Let us call it modernisation, not corporatisation," he said at a recent press conference.

It is this attitude, many believe, that pushes him ahead of his colleagues in the Cabinet.

Of course, as Punj points out, in many ways his ministry is the simplest one to move. "There are no variables about coal and gas linkages or power purchase agreements that infrastructure-related ministries have to face. But he has the political will and he is moving fast," Punj says.

Gadkari was expected to deliver, because of his record in Maharashtra, where he was minister of the public works department in 1994-99. He is the one behind Maharashtra's "jewel in the crown" - the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.

Ministry officials, however, stress that Gadkari doesn't push for a successful model if it outlives its use. They add that he pioneered the concept of public-private partnership (PPP) in the roads sector with a build-operate-transfer (BOT) when he was a minister in Maharashtra.

But the economic slump that started in 2008 brought the PPP mode to its knees. "It was an unholy equation," Punj says. "As interest rates went north, tolling charges for highways went south, leading to an unsustainable model."

Many major road projects were stuck, resulting in huge losses for private companies, with many of them defaulting on their loans. As banks stopped lending money, the sector, not able to afford increased interest rates, almost came to a grinding halt.

"Gone are the days when private players used to blindly take up projects as they did in the mid-2000s when banks were awash with cheap money. Moreover, it wasn't a model followed anywhere in the world. The sovereign government generally funds roads and highways. Private players can only play the role of contractors," Agarwal says.

Gadkari has given a quiet burial to the PPP mode, at least for the time being. He is now encouraging what's known as the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) mode. Contractors can now build road projects with direct financing from the government. But they don't get to own the project after its completion - unlike the BOT contract according to which contractors own a road project for a few years as agreed to by the government.

Recently, Gadkari pushed for a Cabinet decision allowing private road developers to cash out of profitable projects two years from the start of operations and use the same money in projects stuck for lack of funds.

But where does the money come from for all of Gadkari's ambitious plans? The ministry of road transport and highways was allocated around Rs 43,000 crore in the last Union budget. The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), responsible for building highways, is likely to mop up around Rs 24,000 crore through tax-free bonds by the end of this fiscal year.

The government needs around Rs 3 lakh crore for completing all its road projects by 2019-20.

 

Gadkari is said to be wooing foreign pension companies and urging them to invest in the roads sector, with an assured return for the next 30 years.

A ministry official reveals that the adviser to the minister, R.C. Sinha, has been meeting international investors for innovative solutions to attract foreign investment. Sinha, a former IAS officer of the Maharashtra cadre, was Gadkari's go-to man in the state, and oversaw the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.

The RSS is not unhappy with their protégé. After all, the Sangh noticed Gadkari's organisational skills when he was a young boy attending RSS shakhas in Nagpur. But Gadkari was not a novice - his politics had been honed at home by his mother, popularly known as Bhanu Tai, an active member of the Jan Sangh.

"He was aggressive and street-smart," an RSS old-timer recalls. "And he always completed the tasks given to him."

Those traits, along with a genial nature (he is known to burst into Hindi film songs when sitting with friends and reporters), marked Gadkari out in the subsequent years as he joined student politics. A student at G.S. College of Commerce, Nagpur, he studied law at Nagpur University and worked for the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the BJP and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students' wing. Gadkari was also the president of the Nagpur Students' Union.

"He was a very popular student leader because of his easy-going nature," recalls Arvind Khandekar, retired principal of G.S. College of Commerce, who was ABVP president when Gadkari was the Nagpur Students' Union president.

Later, as a BJP member of the Legislative Council, he built his base in Nagpur. He would vroom around in his Vespa scooter and meet party workers.

It was when he was a minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP government that Gadkari became the toast of the town. He is responsible for having constructed 55 flyovers in Mumbai during his stint in the state. He joined the Atal Behari Vajpayee government as the head of the National Rural Roads Development Agency and was said to have drawn out an ambitious Rs 60,000-crore plan for rural roads.

His own stature has grown considerably in these two decades. Over the years, he has also built a strong business empire, with interests in sugar, power, more specifically, renewable energy. But Gadkari's company, Purti Power and Sugar Limited (PPSL), was investigated by the income tax department in 2012 after it was alleged that its owners were "shell" companies with fake addresses. It was also alleged that a few infrastructure companies that won contracts during his tenure as the PWD minister of Maharashtra had invested in PPSL. BJP insiders hold that it was because of these allegations that he was not re-elected party president in 2013.

"But he won the Lok Sabha elections with such a huge margin that it shut everybody's mouth," says Sudhir Deulgaonkar, a personal assistant for 23 years and his representative in Nagpur. It was a "conspiracy" to malign Gadkari, he insists.

Though Gadgari is often caught by photographers riding a wobbly scooter on Nagpur, he is a man of wealth. The whole of Nagpur was decked up for his elder son Nikhil's wedding in 2010. Private jets and chartered planes flew in guests to Nagpur for the wedding. His younger son Sarang's wedding reception in 2012 was a lavish affair, attended by the who's who of Bollywood and politics.

His rise in the BJP in Maharashtra has not been without its share of hurdles. For long years considered a lightweight in the state, he had to fight battles for supremacy in the state BJP unit against Gopinath Munde, who was killed in a road accident in Delhi last year, soon after being sworn in as the rural development minister in the Modi government.

Munde had a mass following. But Gadkari's first serious direct election was fought only last year, for the Lok Sabha elections, from Nagpur. He released his own "Vision Document" for the constituency weeks before his party did so for the general elections. Some of the promises he made included carving a "Vidarbha" state out of Maharashtra, 50,000 jobs and his usual promise of improvement in infrastructure in the city.

"It was his idea to have a Vision Document for the party during the Maharashtra elections in 2009. This was replicated in 2014 general elections," a BJP official says.

Deulgaonkar claims that Gadkari's promises are all being fulfilled and goes on to list all the infrastructure projects that the ministry has started in Nagpur.

But opponents scoff at the claims.

Former state minister and Congress MLA from Nagpur, Nitin Raut, calls Gadkari a politico-businessman with powerful friends and describes his achievements as all " hawa hawai" (in the air).

"He got the Nagpur Metro inaugurated by the Prime Minister, but a tender is yet to be floated on that. Tar roads are being replaced with cemented roads in the name of progress. Only his industrial cronies are benefiting," he says.

On allegations about Purti, Raut says that the charges were buried because Gadkari has "friends" in every party. "He managed the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) well and as its coalition partner, we couldn't do much. I admit our failure that we couldn't expose him," Raut says.

Veteran politician and former Congress leader and MP from Vidarbha, Datta Meghe, also stresses that Gadkari has links with all parties - but unlike many of his colleagues has high praise for him. "I believe he is the best minister in Modi's Cabinet. You give him a job and he delivers," Meghe says.

Prime minister Modi may just nod in agreement.

Road to progress

  • Projects for over 11,100km of new highways awarded in one year
  • Target of awarding 273 road projects covering 12,900km, worth aboutRs 1,26,700 crore, in 2015-16
  • Government allows the National High ways Authority of India (NHAI) to issue tax free infrastructure bonds of Rs 24,000 crore and capital gain tax exemption bonds aggregating to Rs 4,000 crore to raise funds in 2015-16
  • 14 PPP projects have been successfully awarded for 1,800km roads worth Rs 20,000 crore
  • Rs 5,000 crore to be set aside for the greening of national highways  
  • Special land acquisition units set up in some states
  • Fast track dispute resolution at NHAI
  • Under Bharat Mala, 5,500km of roads along international borders and coastal areas to be developed
  • 350 bridges to be constructed/strengthened under a programme called Setu Bharatam.
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