Land and cash cloud on highway upkeep

Calcutta, Feb. 14: The Bengal government's plan to tap private funds for the development and maintenance of state highways has hit a Planning Commission hurdle, leaving it with no option but to allocate funds from its own coffers.

The government had been planning to use the public-private partnership (PPP) model to develop and maintain about 50 per cent of the 4,000km state highway network that is in poor condition.

"The government doesn't have the funds to properly maintain these roads. That's why the PPP model was thought of," a senior government official said.

According to him, the plan died a premature death following the findings of a recent report, drawn up by railway organisation Rites, that have highlighted that the 19 state highways have a width of 5m to 5.5m.

"The Planning Commission guideline states that the minimum width of a highway should be 10m if a state wants to develop it under the PPP module. The roads under PPP module should have 1.5m strips on both sides," a senior Writers' official said.

"The Rites report says there is not enough land to widen the roads to 10m," he added.

The state government could have averted the problem had there been enough land to widen the roads to meet the Planning Commission criteria or if it had allowed the PWD to acquire land for the project.

"But the state's policy has already made it clear that the government will not acquire land for PPP projects, keeping parity with its hands-off land policy," another official said.

Rites was engaged by the West Bengal Highways Development Corporation Limited (WBHDCL) to undertake a pre-feasibility study of five state highways ' SH2, SH3, SH4, SH5 and SH12A ' before inviting investors to develop and maintain them.

Manoj Agarwal, the managing director of WBHDCL, confirmed that the study was carried out but refused to draw any conclusion.

"The agency has submitted the report on only 85km of the five state highways spanning 1,642km. The agency has been asked to undertake a detailed survey now," he said.

Senior PWD officials, however, said the initial report told the "entire story" because the agency was asked to carry out a survey on the stretches where the PPP module seemed to be viable.

"Although there are talks of a detailed survey, the government has accepted that developing state highways under the PPP module is not possible in Bengal because of non-availability of land," a PWD source said.

The PWD has now decided to develop two state highways under the EPC (engineering, planning and construction) module. Under this, agencies can be appointed to develop the roads but the funding has to be done by the state. The roads will be around 7m wide.

The finance department has decided to allot Rs 200 crore to the WBHDCL to take up the projects under this module.

But the amount, an official said, appears to be too meagre to develop all the state highways.

"Developing each kilometre of a two-lane highway requires around Rs 2 crore. The state would require Rs 4,000 crore to develop 2,000km of state highways. The requirement is very big for a cash-strapped state like Bengal and there is no way the government can do anything about it," an official said.

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