It doesn’t get bigger than this for Radheshyam Mopalwar.

The 701-km long ₹55,335 crore ($6.69 billion) Samruddhi Expressway -- linking Vidarbha's largest city, Nagpur, to the country's financial capital, Mumbai -- is a feather in the cap of one of the state’s longest-serving bureaucrat.

When the project – which will cover two-thirds of the state -- was initiated in 2017, there were initially large-scale protests across the 10 districts on the route. What more, the person in charge of the project was at the receiving end of politicians and was also subjected to an alleged insinuation that cost him his job, albeit temporarily. In December 2017, Mopalwar was reappointed as vice-chairman and MD of Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) after a clean chit from a chief minister-appointed panel that probed allegations of corruption against him.

Not surprising that the inauguration of the initial 502-km stretch, connecting Nagpur to Shirdi, early this month, in some sense, is a crowning moment for the 64-year-old IAS officer of the 1995 batch, whose indispensability and validation came when the government, early this year, got him back from retirement by creating a special post -- director general (War Room Infrastructure Projects) – to oversee the implementation of massive infra projects across the state.

For Mopalwar, who also spearheaded Maharashtra's information technology department in the ’90s, managing stakeholder expectations in the project has been the biggest learning and, also, an achievement. “Please remember, in the interiors, land is not an asset but a livelihood for villagers for generations together,” says Mopalwar, who himself comes from the state hinterland. Expressways by nature being greenfield projects -- unlike roads that have existed -- involves acquisition of vast land parcels, including farmland, and, hence, dealing with villagers can be a sensitive affair. “Monetary compensation is the icing on the cake. What a villager really wants to know is whether giving up the land is beneficial for him and his community in the longer run. Since these projects are government-driven there is a comfort factor but still it’s far from easy to get the consent of even a single land owner,” says Mopalwar.

Though the Land Acquisition Act mandates owners to be compensated four times the market value, the state government amended the policy to offer an enticing five times the market value. The corporation paid ₹8,000 crore to acquire 20,000 acres from 34,000 families and in doing so ended up creating a record as the fastest land acquisition in the country -- within 18 months. The reason for the push also came because any delay in the project, would have entailed an annual cost escalation of ₹5,600 crore.

“In such projects, there is always a fear of the unknown and that holds people back from cooperating or even engaging in a positive discussion,” says Mopalwar.

In fact, in the run-up to the land acquisition, communicators were hired by the corporation to guide and counsel the farmers. “We created a communication and project monitoring office and hired 350 boys and girls who had a degree in Master of Social Work. We were clear that the hires had to be MSW students since the job involved a lot of behavioural science and the need to communicate effectively with the villagers,” says Mopalwar.

An initial dipstick survey showed 50% villagers were in favour, 30% were open to the project subject to doubts being cleared and the rest were just sceptical. “Since an overwhelming number of people were in favour, we managed to get a majority (93%) of the land by consent with compulsory acquisition making up for the remainder 7%,” reveals Mopalwar. Instances where land was acquired by compulsion include those where a single tract of land had more than one claimant, but the land extract (satbara) did not have their names. In such cases compensation was equally apportioned between the claimants. “Also, in the case of absentee landlords we had to make a compulsory award because there's nobody to give you consent,” says Mopalwar.

A short orientation course in 2004 at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which deals with civil services of the federal government, including recruitments, helped Mopalwar better understand human rights, including the affirmative action program, a detailed framework of laws and policies aimed at eliminating the effects of discrimination, covering government programs as well. “The course changed my thought process of how to look at social issues,” says Mopalwar.

In fact, the previous land act had left a bitter experience with villagers as some of their claims were pending since 1998. “From 1894 to 2013, for 119 years, we had a regime where people were expropriated as they were mere occupants, while the government was the owner. So, a lot of villagers were bitter about the previous act as they were still to be compensated,” says Mopalwar.

The expressway, named as Hindu Hrudaysamrat Balasaheb Thackeray Maharashtra Samruddhi Mahamarg, was the first example of mass scale acquisition where 20,000 acres were acquired in a single state. “The upcoming Delhi Mumbai expressway is longer but it passes through five states. No single state has ever witnessed this scale of land aggregation. We took more than 300,000 signatures of owners and different stakeholders, including tribals and the forest department,” says Mopalwar.

Conceived in October 2016 by the-then Chief Minister Devendra Fadanvis, the land acquisition began in July 2017, while construction began in January 2019. The entire project was split into 16 packages with 13 private players, including the likes of Megha Engineering & Infrastructures, and Navayuga Engineering Company. By adding 35 kms every three months, the expected date of fully commissioning the expressway is July 2023. “There is one viaduct where the terrain is a big challenge, but we have a clean seven months before monsoon sets in. We are pushing the contractors to put in all their efforts to meet the deadline,” says Mopalwar.

As collector of Nanded district, Mopalwar had his first tryst with development when over his four-year tenure he changed the landscape of the city in terms of water supply, underground sewerage, gardens, roads and bridges. Explaining the secret sauce for timely completion of projects, Mopalwar says, “I get extremely uneasy if I'm not delivering on the deadline. For example, our agreed deadline with the government and bankers is 15th July 2023, but I kept pushing the contractors right from the start with an earlier deadline because had I told them that the deadline was July 2023, they would have kept pushing by six months. Once complacency sets in, it’s tough to pull back in such large scale infra projects,” says Mopalwar.

Though the deadline is less than a year, the fact that more than 70% of the project could be completed in four years despite the pandemic-led disruption in 2020 and 2021, is a remarkable achievement indeed. At the start of 2020, there were close to 40,000 workers engaged in the project, which halved to 20,000 as most skilled labourers went back to their hometowns in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Bengal and Assam. “We would have delivered the project six months earlier had Covid not struck,” says Mopalwar. One of the reasons for the project also getting executed on time is that there is a reward 0.03% for every day of earlier competition and a penalty of 0.5% per day, as well, for late execution, up to an aggregate of 10%. “If the 10% limit is breached, the contract gets cancelled and the contractor’s deposit gets forfeited,” says Mopalwar.

While 2023 will be a milestone in Mopalwar’s professional journey, the bureaucrat is not sure of how long he would be continuing in his current role. While there is no intention to switch over to the private sector, Mopalwar, for now, is contemplating writing his experiences into a book. “I am trying to take some time out every day to pen down my thoughts, lets see how it comes through,” signs off Mopalwar.

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