Opinion
Governments can be appreciated for moving swiftly, but can that be at the cost of due process?
Image for representation. Courtesy: PTI

The controversy around the eight-lane Salem Chennai Expressway seems to be deepening with recently sourced documents revealing that the Rs. 10,000 crore project may have been officially conceived and cleared in just 6 days, and based on a recommendation by a World-Bank-blacklisted consultant. The chronology of the documents also suggest that standard procedures for appraisal and approval for projects this size may have been bypassed.

The project which claims to be part of the Bharatmala Pariyojana of the Government of India finds no mention in any of the publicly-available policy documents prior to February 2018.

In September 2017, Phase 2 of the Bharatmala project was born when a Request for Proposals (RfP) was published by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). The RfP for “Consultancy Services for preparation of DPR (detailed project report) for development of Economic Corridors (GQ and NS-EW Corridors) to improve the efficiency of freight movement in India under Bharatmala Pariyojana (Lot 6)” covers eight projects in Tamil Nadu. The 8-lane Salem Chennai expressway proposal is not among them. 

Neither does the Salem-Chennai road proposal find mention in the list of Phase 1 projects cleared on October 24, 2017, by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs as part of the Phase 1 Bharatmala scheme. The approved list was published by the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) on October 25, 2017 where it announced the launch of projects worth Rs. 5,35,000 crores by end of 2018. Only 800 km of Greenfield Expressways are covered in Phase 1. The only project involving Tamil Nadu is the Chennai Bangalore Expressway for which RfP was published as early as in October 2008.

On November 23, 2017, the Government of Tamil Nadu published a press release highlighting, among other things, its request for amendments and new inclusions to the projects proposed under Sagarmala Pariyojana. The note talks about Salem's centrality to the State's economy, and proposes the inclusion of Bangalore – Hosur – Dharmapuri – Salem – Namakkal – Karur – Dindigul – Madurai section of NH7 (new No. 44) in the priority list prepared by MoRTH for upgradation from 4 lane to 6/8 lane. Additionally, it also requests the upgradation of the Salem to Chengapalli (near Coimbatore) and Coimbatore to Kochi to 6-lane standards. The 54-page document makes no mention of the 8-lane Salem Chennai Expressway.

On February 8, 2018, the Minister of Road Transport and Highways submitted a written reply to a parliamentary question on “Pending Expressway Projects.” Responding to a pointed question on the Expressway projects sanctioned by the Government, the Minister Mansukh L Mandaviya lists 7 projects as pending, including the Chennai-Bangalore Expressway, but makes no mention of the Chennai-Salem Expressway.

The expressway is born

The first mention of the Expressway in any publicly available document seems to be in a letter dated February 23, 2018, from Feedback Infra Pvt Ltd (FIPL) to the Project Directors of NHAI at Chennai, Salem, Krishnagiri and Villupuram announcing its intent to conduct a traffic survey on February 26, 2018 for the “Chennai-Salem Expressway.” The letter even contains a map showing the proposed alignment, including proposed locations of toll plazas.

FIPL, the consultant that prepared the controversial Feasibility Report replete with irrelevant and plagiarised content, is blacklisted by the World Bank. A World Bank press release on the subject reveals that “while executing a construction supervision contract under the Lucknow-Muzaffarpur National Highway Project, Feedback’s staff recklessly verified, and certified for payment, three invoices submitted by a contractor that made false materials advance claims, based upon fictitious steel purchases.”

A source the MoRTH points out that it is not illegal for the MoRTH to work with consultants who have been blacklisted by the World Bank. According to the source, the Supreme Court had held that even blacklisted consultants can respond to Requests for Proposals as long as the RfP does not debar the consultant by specifically naming it.

FIPL's letter refers to a “letter of award” dated December 29, 2017 ostensibly to FIPL for the contract of services requested in the September 2017 Request for Proposal. The letter also refers to a “Presentation to Secretary, MoRTH, and Additional Chief Secretary-Govt of Tamil Nadu, Officer on Special Duty-MoRTH, CGMs-NHAI (HQ), CGM/RO-Chennai, GM-NHAI (HQ), on February 19, 2018.” The contents of the presentation are not public. There seems to be no mechanism for inclusion of a Rs. 10,000 crore Expressway project into the Bharatmala mix at short notice without due diligence. Going by official documents, it is unclear how the contract – which does not cover the Expressway project – was extended to this new idea.

However, a source in MoHRT told TNM that the quick turnaround in the routes selected under the projects and the inclusion of the Salem Chennai was a result of a change in thinking in the Union government, following, among other things, the TN government’s letter on November 23 which sought the Centre to amend the routes. The source says that the Salem-Chennai route had been under the consideration of the MoHRT ever since, and had been discussed by several members of the government including senior IAS officers and ministers. However, as pointed out earlier, this letter does not make any mention of the Chennai-Salem Expressway.

On February 24, 2018, a day after receiving FIPL's letter, the NHAI responded to FIPL's letter instructing its project managers and team leaders to co-ordinate with the consultant to carry out the traffic survey.

Preliminary surveys and preparatory work had begun even before any expression of interest from the State Government was made public.

It is only on February 25, 2018, that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu wrote to Union Minister Mr. Nitin Gadkari suggesting that “a Green Express Way Corridor between Salem and Chennai cities be formed.”

On the same day, at a joint press conference with the Tamil Nadu CM and Gadkari declared, “The access-controlled green expressway corridor between Salem and Chennai along the stretch of 274 km will come up at a cost of Rs 10,000 crore. The process for the green expressway is put on fast track. Tenders will be floated in two months.”

The mega project appears to have been officially conceived and approved in a matter of days. It is a fact that the due diligence procedures for securing approvals for Bharatmala projects have been simplified. But even the simplified procedures take time. Even if the project was under the consideration of the Ministry even before the CM wrote to the minister officially, was there enough time to complete the due diligence in accordance with the law?

According to an explanatory note published by the MoRTH, at the very minimum, “All projects implemented under the program, either by NHAI or MoRTH, are to be technically, financially and economically appraised duly by an empowered and well equipped Project Appraisal & Technical Scrutiny Committee to be set up in NHAI and MoRTH.”

The explanatory note also outlines the criteria for projects to be taken up under Bharatmala Phase I.

For Expressways, one of four criteria is ‘Stretches with ease of Land Acquisition and pre construction activities and DPR preparation.’ The explosion of farmers' protests frustrates the qualification of the proposed alignment as an Expressway.

NHAI's proclaimed due diligence and the quality theoretically required of their project reports are actually quite rigorous. The Request for Proposals for consultancy, for instance, lays out the minimum required tasks of the Consultant – FIPL in this case -- that gets the contract to prepare the DPR (Detailed Project Report).

Stage 1:

  • Quality Assurance Plan.
  • Inception Report involving inspection of entire project stretch, evaluation of development proposals by local governments along the stretch and how they will interact with the proposed highway.

Stage 2:

  • Feasibility Report consisting of a Feasibility Report complete with preliminary social and environmental impact assessment involving local consultations.

Stage 3:

  • Strip Plan and Clearances involving:
  1. Identification and clearly demarcated plan for relocation of utility structures, trees, buildings, fences etc.
  2. Preparation of Land Acquisition Plan.
  3. Details of various clearances.
  4. Preparation of Lan Acquisition Report consisting of a kilometre-wise land acquisition plan with schedule of ownership, costs as per revenue department and realistic costs; copies of draft notifications under Section 3a and 3A of the NHAI Act.

The Land Acquisition report is required to be prepared in consultation with affected persons, NGOs and concerned government agencies.

The Land Acquisition Report is to be prepared only after approval of Feasibility Report and is also required to present Draft Government Orders for notifying Competent Authorities for Land Acquisition (Section 3a of NHAI Act) and for announcing intent to enter and survey lands (Section 3A of Act). It is only after receiving and approving the Land Acquisition Report that notifications under Sections 3a and 3A of the NHAI Acts are to be made. 

According to NHAI's Schedule for Submission of Reports and Documents, it takes 3 months to get to the stage of finalisation of Feasibility Report, and 135 days -- more than 4 months – to get to Land Acquisition Report stage. It is only after this stage that Government Orders to notify Competent Authorities and to enter and survey lands are made.

However, this sequence does not seem to have been followed in the case of the 8-lane project. Within a month of the CM “suggesting” the project, on March 28, 2018, a GO announcing the Competent Authority under Section 3a of NHAI Act was published. In the months that followed, Government Orders calling for objections to the proposed acquisition were published, possibly in violation of procedure.

Till date, no local consultations have been conducted for the preparation of either the Feasibility Report or the Land Acquisition Report. This is in violation of mandatory procedure.

When asked about the details of the various reports which are required to have been prepared by the consultants and the ministry, sources in the ministry say that the matter is now sub-judice.

It is little wonder that the project has run into serious opposition. Hundreds of people have been arrested by the state police for challenging this hurriedly put together project. The ramifications of poor assessment are not merely social in nature. Social opposition and unrest can cripple the financial viability of the project by presenting un-estimated and unmanageable social and political risks.

Opinions expressed are the author's own and not The News Minute's.