Economy

Brakes on Highways, Power Projects on Hold as Jaya Plays Politics, Populism

For one reason or another, a number of Centrally-driven infrastructure projects in Tamil Nadu state government have been stalled

View of the stalled Chennai Port-Maduravoyal Expressway project. Credit: NHAI

View of the stalled Chennai Port-Maduravoyal Expressway project. Credit: NHAI

Chennai: Roadblocks are commonplace for the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). Since road projects need the co-operation and permissions of state government departments, battles are inevitable.

For the first time though, in Tamil Nadu, a state known for efficient administration, the NHAI has been driven to the point of despair. Projects have been delayed and in some cases completely stalled. And NHAI officials say that that there is now a huge backlog of delayed projects.

“Our ministry at the Centre has been writing about these issues, delays and stalled projects, to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, the ministers concerned, everyone, but there has been no response so far,” said V Chinna Reddy, Chief General Manager (Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry region), NHAI. “Local MPs from Tamil Nadu are going to our minister and complaining that projects are incomplete. We tell them the delay is due to the state government and that we are pursuing the matter with them. We need their active support,” he added.

NHAI officials say that at least Rs 1000 crores worth of road projects have been delayed inordinately, sometimes for several years, for various reasons. One example is the 10-kilometre stretch between Madhavaram and Puzhal in Chennai, which has not moved for the past three years. “Land acquisition is the state government’s job but officials have said that the rate for acquisition is not good,” said Reddy. “We are willing to pay the prescribed rate but there is no movement. The concerned officials say they have gone for arbitration and nothing has come out of it.”

A major NHAI project was stalled in February 2012 when the state government ordered NHAI to stop work on the Rs 1815 crore Chennai Port-Maduravoyal Expressway. This project, inaugurated with much fanfare by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in January 2009, bit the dust as a result of customary rivalry between the two Dravidian parties.

In March 2014, the Madras High Court ruled in favour of the project, allowing work to resume. But the state government filed a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court soon after, and this where the matter remains pending. NHAI officials say they have requested the state government to revoke the ‘work stoppage order’ as the apex court has not stayed the project. But the state government has not responded.

“The ministry has asked us to go in for an out-of-court settlement and get the project going,” said Reddy. “We are in the process of doing that, but there has been no movement so far.”

Dravidian rivarly

The Chennai Port-Maduravoyal Expressway is only one of a number of big ticket Central government projects which have been stalled by the state government.

The Rs 600 crore GAIL gas pipeline project connecting the Kochi LNG terminal to Karnataka was to pass through seven districts of Tamil Nadu across 310 km. Farmers in Western Tamil Nadu protested against the pipeline passing through farmlands and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa pledged that the project would not be allowed if it affected farmers. The state asked GAIL to re-align the project to ensure the pipeline passes along the national highway but GAIL refused.

The state government asked GAIL to stop the project, following which the Madras High Court quashed the state’s notice. The Tamil Nadu government then went to the Supreme Court, which stayed the project and the matter remains pending.

“We were all in favour of the project since it would bring gas to power industries and piped gas to homes,” said an industrialist on condition of anonymity. “The state government should have handled the issue better. The GAIL project is an excellent one, we should not have let it go so easily. Both GAIL and the state should have sat down and hammered out an alternative plan and worked together,” he said.

AIADMK spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Rabi Bernard defended his government’s actions. “In the case of GAIL and the Maduravoyal Expressway, there were protests amongst the people against these projects,” said Bernard. “If the proposed alignment had been allowed, it would have destroyed the livelihood of the people there. Our Amma has taken these measures with the welfare of the people in mind,” he said.

Another mega project which has been languishing for 8 years is the Udangudi thermal power project which has been mired in controversy for the past 4 years. Udangudi, which was originally an Ultra Mega Power Project for 2 units of 800 MW each, was initiated by the former DMK state government on the basis of a joint venture with BHEL.

In 2012, a few months after the AIADMK government took over, Jayalalithaa announced that the state would scrap the JV  with BHEL due to “non co-operation” by the central government firm and implement the power project by itself. Tenders were issued and bidders were almost finalized when in late 2014, the state government suddenly decided to scrap the existing tender and go in for a fresh bid. A Chinese consortium which placed the winning bid has now dragged the state power utility to court; the Madras High Court this week stayed re-tendering of the project until judgment is delivered in the case.

“Jayalalithaa’s concept is that of a welfare government and a welfare government means only freebies,” said MG Devasahayam, retired IAS officer. “The government wants to give everything for free – as a result the populace doesn’t want to work at all. There is no concept of development in Tamil Nadu. The state government is not doing anything to add or improve infrastructure so that people may get more jobs and more industry may open up. There is also a problem with her mindset – that if a large Government of India project comes, the credit will go to the Government of India. That is something she would never want. That is probably one of the key reasons for all these projects being stalled,” he said.

Roads to nowhere

Various other projects of the NHAI have been put on the backburner for want of permissions from departments like the Public Works Department. Six-laning work on NH-46, the Trichy bypass on NH-67 and a no-objection certificate for work on the Tiruttani-Tiruninravur section of NH-205 have all been pending, some since 2012. Other projects are stuck due to issues with land acquisition.

Senior officials at the PWD responded with specifics to each delayed project but declined to be named. For the 6-laning on NH-46 the PWD said an NOC had been issued by the department in September 2013 itself and sent to the concerned District Collector. As to what has happened since then, they have no idea.

As for the Tiruttani-Tiruninravur section of NH-205, a PWD official said the proposal is still under scrutiny as they want NHAI to create an elevated highway over the water body. It would be sent to government shortly, said the official.

The Trichy bypass on NH-67, the official said, was only being looked at now. Approval has been given for the work and following The Wire‘s queries, would finally be sent to government, he said.

As for the Maduravoyal Expressway, the PWD stated that the Supreme Court had, a year ago, asked both the state government and NHAI to form a committee to delve into the issue. He said the state had submitted two names for the committee while the NHAI was yet to do so.

The Land Administration Department did not respond to repeated requests for clarification on the issue.

Warning signal

Last November, Union Minister for Shipping and Transport Nitin Gadkari asked the Tamil Nadu government to cooperate with the Centre to complete infrastructure projects. When he met then Chief Minister O Panneerselvam in Chennai, he put in a strong request that an umbrella State Support Agreement (SSA) be signed immediately by the state. Since 2009, the Centre has sent multiple reminders to the state asking it to sign the SSA, to no avail.

“The SSA is one of the major conditions stipulated by the lending agencies for release of funds,” said NHAI’s Reddy. “Delay in signing the SSA is holding back the completion of ongoing projects due to which concessionaires (contractors) are not coming forward to take up any new projects in the state,” he said.

Localised corruption too is a deterrent for contractors taking up NHAI projects in Tamil Nadu. “Concessionaires are not getting permission for raw materials like stones and sand. They have to go to local leaders and make payments to them. Due to this issue, our contractors are not keen on working in this state,” said Reddy.

Business leaders in the state are reluctant to speak out on these issues but they say that infrastructure is a big concern in the state. They say that in the past four years, little to no new infrastructure has been added in Tamil Nadu, which should be a warning signal for the government as it heads into election year in 2016.

Sandhya Ravishankar is a Chennai-based journalist. She tweets at @sandhyaravishan