Four years on, Nagaland road plan a no-go; costs up 230%

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New Delhi | November 26, 2014 1:04 AM

After a four-year delay and a 230% increase in costs to nearly R3,000 crore, four roads in India’s border districts...

After a four-year delay and a 230% increase in costs to nearly R3,000 crore, four roads in India’s border districts of Nagaland are still lying un-built. Two road transport and highways ministers in the previous government have issued orders for taking action against those responsible, but the ministry officers, after putting on record that this needs a Central Vigilance Commission inquiry, have instead only pushed for bringing in a consultant to suggest a fresh cost estimate.

All these, despite a public interest litigation pending in the Guwahati High Court wanting to know the reason for the spike in costs. The revised estimate is incidentally more than the size of the Nagaland’s annual Plan spend for 2013-14.

These four roads crisscross Nagaland, providing vital links with the national highways, which current road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari has promised to fast track. They were approved for a combined cost of R1,296 crore by the then minister, Kamal Nath, in December 2010. Since these projects were tendered out as a package as per government rules, there was no provision for escalation.

Yet, 14 months later with hardly any progress in construction, the Nagaland government sent a revised whopping high estimate of R2,978.20 crore to the road ministry in Delhi and all hell broke loose.

Based on the options put up to him, including a possible reference to the CVC, the minister concerned, CP Joshi, noted on the file: “Take action against those who have committed mistake in DPR (detailed project report) preparation, scrutiny, etc”. The contractor approved for the project was Maytas-Gayatri, the joint venture between the erstwhile infra arm of Satyam Computers and that led by former Congress MP Subbirami Reddy’s son, TV Sandeep Kumar Reddy. Gayatri Constructions did not reply to the e-mails and phone calls made to them.

In a reply to this newspaper, the ministry acknowledged that while the DPRs were prepared by the Nagaland government, those were examined by the ministry in Delhi by officers at all levels, before being put up to the minister for approval. This means they should have been held responsible.

Joshi told The Indian Express his decisions were “transparently made out in black and white and I have no further comments to make on those”. Gadkari, too, refused to comment on this case when contacted.

Noting the huge cost escalation, the financial adviser in the ministry described it as a “scam” in her notes on the file. “It is very difficult to accept that inadequate project preparation tells the whole story… A gentle tap dance around serious issues should not be the way forward”. She suggested referring the case to the CVC for taking suitable action.

At that point, this position was also endorsed by the current road secretary, Vijay Chhibber. “There has been a complete breakdown of project management for this sanctioned work by Nagaland state PWD”, he noted in his comments on the file, reviewed by The Indian Express.
But, surprisingly, when the file travelled down from minister Joshi, no action was asked for against the concerned officials, either at New Delhi or in the Nagaland government. Instead, the only discussions were about how to appoint an independent consultant to suggest a fresh cost estimate for the projects.

How did this happen? Next week, Joshi resigned and Oscar Fernandes took over. The file travelled once more to the new minister.

Interestingly, Chhibber, in his fresh note for the new minister, while mentioning that action needed to be taken against those “who have committed mistakes in DPR preparation, scrutiny, etc”, did not elaborate on the vigilance angle any further.

But Fernandes still noted in the file on June 22, 2013: “We may issue show cause before taking action.” The example of the transformation of a corruption case to a soft-pedal exercise in appointment of a consultant possibly demonstrates why the pace of road construction all over the country has dipped to zero kilometers by July this year, as per ministry statistics.

The files on this road case that was a priority project of UPA government for border areas show that when the revised estimate from the Nagaland PwD was received in Delhi in 2012, a technical committee of road engineers was sent by the Union ministry to examine the project sites. But the committee headed by the then addl director general, VL Patankar, merely suggested stopping work and blacklisting the consultants from future contracts. It was okayed by their boss, director general C Kandasamy who simply classified the bloated estimates as a case of “inadequate project preparation”. The financial adviser to the Union road and transport ministry was the first one to rail against this “damage control approach”.

She noted that the committee reconfirmed the major collusive nexus but “the suggestions, in fact, end up condoning — with unwarranted good grace — the apparent complicity of the state PwD, contractor and possibly local officials of (the road transport ministry) in the scam”.

She added that the “dismal implementation of the project, tellingly points towards misappropriation of public funds and breach of trust”.

Based on these observations, the secretary too noted that one “approach could be to refer this entire matter to CVC for advise and further follow up action”. He added that this will put the project in jeopardy but send a signal to the state governments in the Northeast “that the poor project management will not be condoned”. By then, about a third of the estimated cost for construction was already released.

Yet, after the unanimous comments from the two ministers, the file when it reached lower down within the road ministry, it became just one of appointing a consultant from among public sector firms to make a fresh assessment of costs for the project, oblivious to the magnitude of the scam. None of the concerned officers (it didn’t reach the FA again) made any reference to the issue of apportioning responsibility for the delay and the consequent massive rise in costs.

In a written reply to this paper, Chhibber has noted the Nagaland state PwD has now offered to slash the cost by Rs 1,000 crore to Rs 1,966.02 crore while RITES India has been appointed by the ministry in Delhi “for the preparation of a revised cost estimate” on April 17 this year. The report is expected in nine months, his response says. But there is no reference to fixing responsibility for the four year delay where virtually no construction has happened.

No way

The four road projects were approved for a combined cost of R1,296 crore by the then minister, Kamal Nath, in December 2010

The costs have now increased to nearly R3,000 cr

These four roads crisscross Nagaland, providing vital links with the national highways, which Gadkari has promised to fast track

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