Be it the lush green mountain ranges of Kashmir or the outskirts of Gurgaon, country's financial capital Mumbai or Prayagraj, where pilgrims from across the country take a dip in the holy Triveni Sangam, the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, a common thread has been running through them for the past couple of years. Each of these places is set to reap benefits of one or more massive infrastructure projects—expressways, bullet train, airports, rapid rail, and freight corridor—planned and funded at a scale unimaginable in India till a few years ago. The projects will provide a facelift to the country's infrastructure, make its economic engines more efficient and push growth by keeping central government's capital expenditure ticking.
Infrastructure building can be a strong engine of economic growth. For U.S. and European economies, first industrial revolution triggered a massive building spree and ushered in an era of economic well-being. Later, infrastructure-led growth worked for post World War-II Germany as well as Japan which, thanks to reconstruction, reported very high growth rates in 1950s and 1960s. More recently, just before joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, China started record infrastructure building, which assumed global dimensions in the form of trans-continental connectivity projects such as Belt And Road Initiative by 2013. In last one decade, India, too, has taken up projects of unprecedented scale. BJP-led central government has, in fact, invested ₹31,67,470 crore in infrastructure since it came to power in 2014. Has India finally set the ball rolling in the right direction?
Ten Mega Projects
Colossal expenditure on infrastructure, which went up sharply after outbreak of Covid, has led to a sea change in scale of projects. The era of small isolated projects has given way to mobility ecosystems for seamless movement, trade facilitation and, most important, lowering logistics costs. The policy seems to be in line with the target of creating infrastructure befitting a country aiming to become an alternative to China. We look at 10 most ambitious projects costing around ₹7.10 lakh crore that will enhance infrastructure profile of the country, lower logistics costs, enhance ease of doing business and serve as a template for similar projects in future.
Expressways Lead Way
In 2017, when central government was envisaging Bharatmala Pariyojana-I for building about 34,800 kms of national highways, ministry of road transport and highways took an important decision. It decided to go for greenfield projects. The reason: Cost of pre-construction activities in upgrading existing alignments, including land acquisition, was significantly higher than civil costs. Greenfield approach also provided an opportunity to reach the hitherto unconnected places.
First such corridor was 1,352 kms Delhi-Mumbai expressway that promises to halve travel time to 12 hours with top speed of 120 kms per hour. It is being developed in an eight-lane configuration with scope for expansion to 12 lanes. Also in the works is a network of 92-way side amenities every 50 kms on either side of the road. The expressway will end at Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Mumbai and will become a significant trunk route for freight movement. The reduction in distance is expected to reduce logistics costs by 8-9%, as per estimates by National Highways Authority of India. The road is likely to result in savings of ₹1,00,000 crore over its life. The Delhi-Surat stretch will be operational by March this year, while the entire road till Mumbai, barring the JNPT stretch, will be complete by December. JNPT connectivity is expected by March next year.
This, however, is only the beginning, as the ministry is working on Vision Plan 2047, likely to be rolled out soon. "By 2047, we will try to compete with infrastructure of developed countries and have 50,000 kms of access controlled highways. This is our vision," says Anurag Jain, secretary, road transport and highways ministry.
Another mega expressway is coming up in Uttar Pradesh. The 592-km Ganga Expressway connecting Meerut and Prayagraj has been awarded on PPP model of Design Build Finance Operate And Transfer at a time when even central government is finding it difficult to bid out projects to the private sector. In 2021, IRB Infrastructure Developers bagged the ₹6,555 crore project to develop the 129-km section between Meerut and Badaun. The 464-km Badaun–Prayagraaj section has been awarded to Adani Enterprises Ltd. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has asked the implementing agency to finish the project by January 2025 in view of the Mahakumbh, well ahead of the 2025-end deadline. According to UP Expressways Industrial Development Authority, 32% project was complete as on January 15.
Railways Not Far Behind
The highway ministry is not alone. The railway ministry is also on an overdrive. Its 508-km Ahmedabad–Mumbai bullet train is comparable to Delhi-Mumbai expressway in terms of scale and cost (₹1.08 lakh crore). The trains will run at 320 kms per hour and cover 508 kms and 12 stations in two hours and 58 minutes. Trains with limited stops (Surat, Vadodara and Ahmedabad) will cover the distance in two hours and seven minutes. A total of 35 trains will operate in one direction every day with frequency of 20 minutes during peak hours and 30 minutes during non-peak hours. According to ministry of railways, the entire 1,389 hectares required for the project has been acquired. Even though the project has been significantly delayed from the original deadline of 2024, it will serve as a template for future bullet train corridors for which railways has decided to undertake surveys and prepare detailed project reports. The corridors are Delhi-Varanasi, Mumbai-Nagpur, Delhi-Ahmedabad, Mumbai-Hyderabad, Chennai-Bengaluru-Mysuru and Varanasi–Howrah.
While the marquee project promises to bring the two business hubs closer, railway ministry is hard at work in remote areas too. One of its ambitious projects in the treacherous Himalayan geography is all-weather railway line in J&K to bring the valley closer to the rest of India. The ministry has operationalised majority of sections on its most ambitious project ever—western and eastern freight corridors. Conceptualised in early 2006, it picked up steam only in 2015, and is now nearing completion. Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India, implementing the project, has commissioned 1,337 kms Sahnewal–Sonnagar stretch of the eastern corridor. On the 1,506-km western corridor, work on 330 kms is still on. The corridors have nonetheless expedited freight movement wherever they are operational. Work on more such corridors is expected to begin soon. The future corridors—East Coast (Kharagpur–Vijayawada, 1,115 kms), East West Sub Corridor-I (Palghar-Dankuni, 2,073 kms), East West Sub Corridor-II (Rajkharsawan–Andal, 195 kms), North South Sub Corridor (Vijaywada-Itarsi, 975 kms)—are estimated to cost ₹2 lakh crore.
The railway ministry is also implementing the ₹37,012 crore Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla project, a 272-km link for all-weather connectivity to Kashmir, in a bid to bring the valley closer to the rest of the country. The train will cross India’s highest arch bridge (359 metres) on the Chenab. The bridge has been constructed; work on laying tracks is on.
While the aforementioned projects look to bring different regions of the country closer, government is also taking up projects to ensure that business hubs are more tightly knitted with areas around them. Urban mobility is the next big thing with projects such as Delhi–Meerut regional rapid transport system, which has been rechristened as 'Namo Bharat,' being built at a cost of ₹30,274 crore, and the ₹17,000 crore Mumbai Trans Harbor Link, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January, redefining Indian infrastructure.
Namo Bharat trains will provide high speed, high capacity corridors in NCR covering 100 kms in 45-50 minutes. The focus is on multi-modal integration with railway, metro, bus and airport networks. The project is being implemented by National Capital Region Transport Corporation, a JV between central and Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and UP governments. Phase-I will cover Delhi–Ghaziabad–Meerut (82 kms), Delhi–Gurugram–Alwar (198 kms) and Delhi-Panipat (103 kms). All three lines will converge at Sarai Kale Khan in New Delhi. "I am confident that RRTS will emerge as one of the most popular, economically productive and environment friendly urban mobility systems that the country has ever witnessed. We will set a benchmark for similar projects in the future," says Vinay Kumar Singh, MD, NCRTC.
Like Mumbai Trans Harbour link, which provides connectivity to Navi Mumbai International Airport, the implementing agency is exploring options to connect Namo Bharat to Noida International Airport, which will be operational by the end of year. The timeline is 2041.
Mumbai Trans Harbour link will not only serve as an important route to Navi Mumbai airport but also be crucial in development of the Mumbai-III region—the third satellite area to mainland Mumbai after Navi Mumbai—being developed around the upcoming airport.
Namami Gange Project
Transport and logistics is a focus area. So is environment. One of government’s flagship projects, Namami Gange, approved in 2014, is aimed at conservation and rejuvenation of Ganga. The project, being undertaken at a cost of `22,500 crore, involves construction of sewage treatment plants, river-front development, river surface cleaning and industrial affluent monitoring. A total of 48 sewage management projects are under implementation while 99 have been completed in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. A total of 27 sewage projects are under tendering. Work for construction, modernisation and renovation of 270 ghats/crematoria and ponds has also been initiated.
"Ganga is the lifeline of the region. With people’s faith and belief in the river, it becomes pertinent to be watchful of pollutants going into the river. Sewerage and industrial waste are the two primary sources of pollution in the river. UP produces 5,500 million litres of sewage per day. The entire sewage will be treated in next one-and-a-half to two years before getting released in the river," says Anurag Srivastava, principal secretary, Namami Gange and rural water supply department, and ground water director, Jal Jeevan Mission, UP government. Srivastava says vendors creating treatment facilities will maintain them for 15 years.
The projects showcase government’s resolve to think big. For now, it seems to have cracked the funding code too by getting multilateral agencies on board. The prospective projects will on their part become huge revenue earners. A case in point being the Delhi-Mumbai expressway which alone is expected to fetch about ₹18,000 crore toll revenue annually, as per estimates by ministry of highways. For the momentum to continue, government will have to continue its capital expenditure strategy, supported by private capacity expansion. Only sustained infrastructure investment over the years can help the Indian economy leapfrog to the next level.