<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>Last week, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) – beaming with confidence of India moving up in the global index of doing business – flexed its muscles by making it clear that there shall be proper rating of highways, toll plazas, construction companies and consultants. Interestingly, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) had recently debarred companies like Larsen and Toubro (L&T) and Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) from bidding for new projects for a year due to their “lackadaisical attitude” in meeting deadlines. These developments in the infrastructure sector with the regulatory framework being tightened are a bit too much and a bit too fast. India with its continental size needs effective highways – broad, without potholes and cattle besides smooth flow of traffic without bottlenecks. It also needs driver-friendly, safe, secure, durable and easy to maintain roads. It is not always possible to connect cities, towns and villages by rail or air and road connectivity is the answer. Expressways are the conduit between two habitations, and with motorised vehicles providing speed, safety and comfort, it is natural that the demand for good roads will grow with prosperity, business and trade.Movement of goods and people require speedy transport and proper roads. The government has not done enough on this front. Lack of resources, both financial and technical, has been a major reason to bring in private participation in infrastructure development.Private companies like L&T, HCC and others have contributed immensely to the growth story. In the process, the companies have generally done well by rewarding shareholders in the long run. Knowing the entire landscape – political, bureaucratic, legal and social – of doing business like the back of their hand, these companies have often been running the show. It is an open secret that most of the premium construction business has been shared between a few top-notch companies.Other players have not been able to compete due to their inability to handle big-ticket projects as well as lack of understanding of finer aspects of handling political and legal issues. This often results in matters reaching courts as stakes are usually high and parties do not hesitate toplay the legal gamble – it doesn’t cost much to fight the legal battle but if one wins, it is like hitting the jackpot.Though the recent actions by the MoRTH and the NHAI are salutary and aim at cleansing the system, there are serious doubts about the ability and willingness of these organisations in putting their own houses in order.Unfortunately, recently there have been several media reports about issues of conflict of interest, favouritism, dummy players bidding for lucrative contracts with knowledge and sometimes collusion of insiders, tailoring specifications to suit certain bidders and biased decision-making. Such disclosures and discussions in public do not infuse confidence.With 24X7 media, and the people armed with the RTI Act, there is hardly anything which can be kept away from public knowledge. There is rightfully no need to keep anything under wraps, however, any government or any statutory authority is not supposed to transact all the business it does at the crossroads. Most of the negotiation exercises, before anything is put down in black and white, are not open to public scrutiny. Re-negotiation of awarded contracts is also a ticklish matter and most of the issues can be dealt with satisfactorily if both parties remain realistic.The current stand taken by the MoRTH and NHAI, prima facie, is too idealistic and text-book style. Earlier too, there have been serious issues with all major construction companies walking away when the bar was raised too much. There has to be a proper blend of realism to make things work. Only then, the people will be able to have a better experience at better highways.

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Time to pave national highways with pragmatism