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Roads & Highways – Wired for the Future

Roads & Highways – Wired for the Future

Technology is becoming the mainstay for a number of government initiatives in the country to boost the Road & Highways sector. A slew of projects have been introduced by the government to enable a safe, developed and sustainable roads & highways sector that will script its future on speed and technology, explores EPC World.  

Be it Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) or the new age loved gadget a drone that was not so long ago was made mandatory by the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to for recording development, construction, operation and maintenance of all national highways. With an ambitious aim of constructing 40 kilometres of highways every day in the current financial year, to go beyond the previous daily record of 37 km that was constructed during 2019-20, use of technology to monitor the progress becomes a gnawing necessity. NHAI has also been using technologies including radar, and remote sensing for mapping underground infrastructure like telephone lines to prevent time and cost overruns caused by manual mapping errors.

The importance of network of modern and high quality roads for economic development and creating employment opportunities has been repeatedly emphasized by Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Shri Nitin Gadkari. In a recent meeting with officials of the Ministry, NHAI, NHIDCL and PWDs, the minister had also stated that under the leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi a faster, safer and sustainable approach is being adopted towards building road infrastructure in the country. He added that it is a collective mission to road infrastructure of global standard in the country. The minister further stressed upon safety-first approach for Road design and construction, construction of environment-friendly roads, industry-friendly approach, new technology for safe, faster and economic roads and faster construction.

Taking the vision further and moving on from conventional fuels to alternative sources of energy for powering transport like electricity, electric highways may soon be a reality in the country. Government is in talks with a number of overseas firms to develop these futuristic corridors from Delhi-Jaipur in the near future followed possibly between Delhi-Mumbai. 

Renewed Focus on the Sector

The roads & highways sector has seen renewed focus and significant growth in the past five years. More than Rs 1.18 Lakh crore has been allocated to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) by the Government of India as an outlay for FY 2021-22. Further, various economic corridors have also been recognized by the government to play an enabling role in transforming India’s economy to grow to USD 5 trillion by 2025. “Importance to the sector is also exhibited by the fact that it accounts for approximately 18% of the National Infrastructure Pipeline. Various state governments have also considered developing critical road corridors as a catalyst of economic development. In order to ensure timely completion of projects, the government has taken proactive measures to revive languishing projects, solve operational issues, provide time bound dispute resolution, expedite land acquisition, provide enhanced focus on road safety and adopt technology enabled solutions. Lately the focus of the sector has been on road safety, green initiatives, digital transformation and augmentation of funding sources,” states a PwC report.

Further, the recently launched PM GatiShakti - National Master Plan is looking to achieve multimodal connectivity and reduce costs. PM GatiShakti is a digital platform connecting 16 ministries — including Roads and Highways, Railways, Shipping, Petroleum and Gas, Power, Telecom, Shipping, and Aviation — for ensuring holistic planning and execution of infrastructure projects. Projects covered under the initiative would include Bharatmala, Sagarmala, inland waterways, dry/land ports, UDAN, various economic zones and product specific clusters, defence corridors, electronic parks, industrial corridors, and agri zones. The centre had also recently constituted an empowered group of secretaries to monitor the mechanism for the development and implementation of the PM Gati Shakti National Master Plan. According to an official notification by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, this 20-member group will set out procedure and definitive timeframe for synchronization of various activities for construction of roads and rail, etc., along with all utility services in an area-based approach for development of infrastructure on a pilot basis.

“Just as we have been successful in taking the government facilities in the country to the right beneficiary faster with the power of the JAM trinity — Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile — Gati Shakti will do the same work in the field of infra. It will provide a holistic vision — from infra planning to execution,” PM Modi had stated during his Independence Day address while announcing the launch of PM GatiShakti. He had also stated how this project will also be a source of employment for the youth in the future.

The portal will offer 200 layers of geospatial data, including on existing infrastructure such as roads, highways, railways, and toll plazas, as well as geographic information about forests, rivers and district boundaries to aid in planning and obtaining clearances & also look at the issue of moving beyond government departments working in silos. As Amitabh Kant, Chief Executive Officer, NITI Aayog states on the official portal, “GatiShakti will bring synergy to create a world class, seamless multi-modal transport network in India. The National Master Plan will employ modern technology and the latest IT tools for coordinated planning of infrastructure. A GIS-based Enterprise Resource Planning system with 200+ layers for evidence-based decision-making is one example. The use of satellite imagery for monitoring is another. Digitisation will play a big role in ensuring timely clearances and flagging potential issues, and in project monitoring as well”.

Tech to the rescue

Adding to the use of technology in the sector, IITs across the country are working on creating a unique "smart speed warning system" for vehicles that will make the driver aware on the basis of road infrastructure and geographical location to avoid crashes caused due to over-speeding. Ministry statistics indicate that almost 70 per cent of the road fatalities occur due to over-speeding. While vehicles sold post July 1, 2019 were mandated to have speed governing devices installed to generate intermittent warning beeps for above 80 kmph and the constant beep for above 120 kmph for drivers along with increasing fine for speeding under Motor Vehicles Act of 2019, gaps still existed. The effectiveness of these devices could not generate satisfactory results while driving in hilly terrains, deserts or plain areas. The device being developed by IITs aims to counter this and provide speed threshold based on upcoming road infrastructure.

In another noteworthy innovation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is planned to be used in road safety to reduce the occurrence of road accidents. The International Institute of Information Technology-Hyderabad (IIIT-H) in collaboration with tech giant Intel, NMC (Nagpur Municipal Corporation) and CSIR-Central Road Research Institute (CRRI) and other partners have launched project iRASTE (intelligent Solutions for Road Safety through Technology and Engineering) in Nagpur with an aim to reduce incidents of accident by 50 per cent. Mini pilots of this project were also conducted in Telangana (Hyderabad), Kerala and Karnataka where a small fleet of buses were deployed with collision avoidance system.

Further strengthening the mission to ensure safe driving and reduce road fatalities, a parliamentary panel has recommended the government to introduce a “log in and log out” system for driving and driving hours per day. Experts have recommended that “driving hours of drivers be regulated by introducing a login and logout system for driving and driving hours per day be restricted to a specific number of hours beyond which the system may not permit the driver to drive.” Experts believe that effective solution lies in implementation of technology as against physical enforcement. “Devices can be installed on vehicles that can read the finger impression of the respective driver and the ignition and complete stop can be automatically linked to the total driving hours. There is technology, but this needs adoption by all transporters and vehicle owners,” stated an official.

Partnering in Development

Roads & Highways sector in the country is undergoing a tectonic shift with increasing investments; favourable policy support and presence of liquidity is driving this change. The change is ably supported by the private sector that has emerged as a significant player in developing road infrastructure in India. According to official data there were 125 PPP projects worth US$ 23.25 billion in India in FY21. As 100% FDI in the road sector has been permitted by the government, this has managed to attract a number of overseas companies to collaborate with Indian players to make the most of the sector’s growth.

Recently, National Highways Authority of India (“NHAI”) launched its InvIT as a mode to monetise road projects. According to an official statement, ‘The InvIT will initially have a portfolio of five operating toll roads with an aggregate length of 390 kilometers, with more roads planned to be added later. These roads are located across the states of Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Telangana. NHAI has granted new concessions of 30-years for these roads. In view of the long-term nature of the assets, the units of InvIT were placed with international and domestic institutional investors. The units have been issued under the private placement route under SEBI InvIT Regulations, 2014 at the upper valuation band of Rs.101 per unit. The units will be listed on NSE and BSE. NHAI InvIT attracted two international pension funds, namely Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, as anchor investors, who will hold 25% of the units each’.

Giridhar Armane, Secretary MoRTH and NHAI Chairman in an official statement said, “We are pleased that NHAI InvIT has been able to garner funds from marquee international and domestic institutional investors to support the Government of India’s National Monetisation Pipeline. We welcome the two anchor investors - Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board and Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, and other reputed domestic investors, into NHAI InvIT. The success of this InvIT shall go a long way in achieving Hon’ble Prime Minister’s vision of developing world class infrastructure in the country.”

The Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari had later shared that the NHAI’s first infrastructure investment trust has raised more than Rs 5,000 crore. Sharing on the social media platform Twitter, the minister stated, “Under the National Monetisation Pipeline (NMP), which is based on 'Creation through Monetisation', the NHAI has launched its InvIT to monetise NH projects and has demonstrated a strong ability to attract a wide variety of sophisticated global investors. NHAI InvIT attracted two international pension funds, Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board and Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan Board, which along with diversified DIIs invested units worth more than Rs 5,000 cr in InvIT portfolio which has currently 5 National Highway."

With an armed tech force behind it, the roads & highways sector in the country is marching towards Acche Din!


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