IN JUNE THIS YEAR, Union road transport and highway ministry's 'remarkable feat', as minister Nitin Gadkari puts it, of laying 26.82 kilometres of bituminous concrete road in 24 hours earned a mention in Limca Book of Records and Asia Book of Records. The work was done on four-lane Solapur-Bijapur section of National Highway 13. Taking to X (formerly Twitter), an elated Gadkari reiterated the government's commitment to 'swift', 'seamless' and 'energy-efficient' mobility across the nation.

But highway construction data for current financial year shows that average construction per day in H1 (April-September) of FY24 was just 19.59 km a day, significantly less than 36 km per day in FY21. A total of 3,567 km were constructed during H1 FY24 compared with 3,559 km in H1 FY23. The target for the financial year is 13,800 km.

Highway construction has been on a downward spiral over the years. Total highway construction in H1 of FY24 is down 6.7% compared with 3,824 km in H1 of FY22 and 9.69% less than 3,950 km in H1 of FY21, according to data from the ministry of road transport and highways.

After a record performance in FY21, when 13,327 km were constructed despite the pandemic, annual construction was flat at 10,457 km in FY22 and 10,331 km in FY23.

So, what's ailing highway construction? Until last year, it was high input costs in the wake of commodity price spiral of FY22, which got worsened by the Russia-Ukraine war. Officials say construction has been impacted due to high inflation this year too but they expect a pick-up in the latter half of the year.

"Above average rainfall during last monsoon is adversely impacting construction progress. Accordingly, there has been a marginal shortfall in construction of national highways as compared to the same period of FY22," says the ministry's annual report for 2022-23. "The ministry is closely monitoring progress and working with project implementing agencies, state governments, contractors/developers to resolve issues/bottlenecks in projects and speed up construction of national highways. Periodic review meetings are being held at various levels, and several steps have been taken to improve liquidity of funds available with contractors/developers, to expedite progress," it adds.

The award of projects has also nosedived. Contracts for highways spanning 2,286 km were awarded during the period, almost 44% less than 4,092 km in H1 of previous financial year. In the first half of FY21, 5,052 km were awarded. The annual report, meanwhile, points out that overall road projects exceeding 65,000 km, costing more than ₹11 lakh crore, are in progress, of which work on more than 39,000 km has been completed and balance 26,000 km are in progress. "National highways of 5,774 km length have been constructed during first nine months of FY2022-23. The ministry has placed a target of 14,300 km for award, which is the highest ever, and 12,200 km for construction for FY23," says the annual report.

Despite the blip in the numbers, the highway ministry, one of the key government departments contributing significantly to the economy, should not lose sight of the pace of project implementation and award for seamless construction of highways and expressways in the future.

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