Sucheta Dalal :The R16;untolledR17; story of Mumbai-Pune expressway (15 Dec 2003)
Sucheta Dalal

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The ‘untolled’ story of Mumbai-Pune expressway (15 Dec 2003)  

Pune Expressway, along with the Konkan Railway and the Delhi Metro is one of the few showpieces of well-implemented infrastructure projects in the country. The 94-km Expressway is funded through bonds raised by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC). However, ever since its completion, the Congress-NCP regime has refused to complete other developments that were to generate additional revenue and make it viable. Instead, the government has focussed on hawking the project to an outside operator for a price.

A couple of years ago, an insidious media campaign tried to dub the Expressway as being dangerously accident prone. Two years later, an emergency helpline has been set up, patrolling has been intensified after a spate of dacoities and a couple of perfunctory food courts, petrol pumps and toilets have been created on either side of the Expressway. But no attempt has been made to bar drunken drivers or to check overloaded trucks from blocking traffic either on the Expressway or even on the existing national highway. Yet, reports questioning the safety of the Expressway have surfaced again.

A little investigation in December 2001 had revealed that a South African and a Singapore-based company, with strong political links were sniffing at the possibility of buying the Expressway cheap. No wonder it was being branded unviable and unsafe. Last week MSRDC issued an advertisement inviting bids to operate and maintain the Expressway.

Check out the hype in the ad: It’s not every day that we — as individuals or society—are faced with the chance to alter the course of history. Now this reality faces you in the form of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway: a golden opportunity that won’t knock twice. Let’s fact it, the country’s first and only expressway didn’t take that much time to enhance the lives of countless Mumbaikars and Puneites, leave alone the myriad industries it continue to enrich. And herein lies your opportunity — a dream ‘untolled’ one that can translate into monetary gains in excess of Rs 2,000 crore. Interested? Read on.”

Yes, that is exactly what it says, complete with emphasis in bold, hyperbole and bad punning. At the same time, it leaves unanswered several vital questions that will affect ‘countless Mumbaikars and Puneites’. Let’s start with the pun about ‘a dream untolled’. Far from anything being untolled, the bids are invited on the basis of tolling both the Expressway and the National Highway 4 (which will be strengthened and widened). The advertisement projects a toll income of over Rs 110 crore on both roads (the estimate is surprising, because the current annual toll revenue on the Expressway is already Rs 110 crore) and growing at 8 per cent. But Mumbaikars and Puneites would surely like an assurance that income growth would come from increased traffic and not a higher and unaffordable toll rate. Will the bidder be responsible for the security, traffic control, green belt and maintenance? Again no answers. Also, what powers will the maintenance contractors have to keep out cows, sheep, cyclists, tractors and people from the high-speed carriageway? The advertisement lists a set of qualifications for bidders, but says nothing about how this ‘monetary gain of Rs 2,000 crore’ will be realised if MSRDC couldn’t even make a nodding acquaintance with viability in the three years that it ran the Expressway. What exactly is this monetary gain? Will it come from toll collection? Advertising revenue? Land development? Or, from motels, restaurants, food courts and petrol pumps? The advertisement says nothing. Does this mean that bidders are seeking private assurances on these issues before bidding? The original viability of the Rs 1,630 crore Expressway was based on township at Chowk fetching over Rs 350 crore and a software development park near Pune. But the Congress-NCP government scrapped the plan. It even took the unprecedented step of returning the land acquired under the plan. Thee was also a clear proposal to raise revenue through advertisement hoardings, petrol pumps, food plazas with toilet and communication facilities at Kon, Chowk, Khalapur, Kusgoan and Talegoan. Will these be revived?

There are other important questions too. Who will supervise the maintenance contractor and what, if any, are the penalties for failing to maintain quality or cluttering Expressway with too many hoardings and neon signs? Shouldn’t these conditions and penalties be decided and made public before inviting maintenance bids? After all the Expressway belongs to the people of Maharashtra. Also, as the Expressway’s dynamic architect and former MSRDC managing director R.C. Sinha has pointed out, “efforts had to be made to market the project and drive traffic to the Expressway”. This was never done. Two years ago, MSRDC told us that the Maharashtra government was to fund the road widening (to four lanes) on the NH-4, but it is now being handed over to bidders who will maintain the Expressway. Media reports say that MSRDC has spent Rs 2,079 crore on the Expressway, as against the original estimate of Rs 1,630 crore, and it had a debt burden of Rs 3,243 crore as on March 31, 2003. But interest rates have dropped from a high 13 per cent to just around 8-9 percent. Why then has the MSRDC not implemented other plans, which were part of the original idea to make the Expressway viable?

One is not even clear whether it makes more sense to hand over the maintenance of the Expressway as well as NH-4 to the same bidder? Won’t it put us at the mercy of one firm, especially during the road-widening period? After watching how the MSRDC has bungled the Worli-Bandra Sea link to the point that it plans to invite fresh bids to complete the half-done project, we think it is a good idea for the Expressway maintenance to be handed over to an outside contractor. But Mumbaikars and Puneites must demand that MSRDC answers all the unanswered questions before it hands over a project, which is the pride of the State, to private parties.

The advertisement ends by saying: ‘This is it. Determine the future. Create History. The choice is yours’. This applies more to the people who will use the project rather than its maintenance contractors.

-- Sucheta Dalal