Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Detour Ahead for Kerala?

About a week ago, I had the occasion to attend, on behalf of TDF, a briefing with Mr R.P.N. Singh - the Union Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways about the ongoing debate about highway width in Kerala. The young (by Indian political standards, of course!) and suave Minister waxed eloquent to the assembled team of industry captains (and one development activist) about how the Union Government would try and evolve a formula (a face saving one, for all concerned) to find a solution to the blocked development of the State's Highways. He appeared perplexed by the successive demands to reduce the width of the Highway, especially in view of the fact that other densely populated States like Goa and West Bengal had agreed to develop their highway stretches along the standard 60 m Right of Way (RoW). Mr Singh seemed even more disappointed that his own Congress party colleagues were on the war path as well.
The Ministry of Highways has made it clear that they are not willing to compromise on the 45 m RoW. Instead, their offer is to ensure that a fair Compensation & Rehabilitation package is provided to everyone affected by the project. About Rs 1100 Crores has already been set apart for this purpose for the 600-plus Km of roads to be widened. However, it is up to the State Government to facilitate the implementation of the package.

This view of the Union Government, protests among industry organisations - who have realized what kind of damage the hiatus in highway development can cause to the economic growth of the State - and perhaps a belated realization that the vast majority of the State's population don't want to spend the rest of their lives using narrow, congested and downright dangerous National Highways, seem to have persuaded the political leadership of the various parties in the State to have a change of heart. It started with Ministers Jose Thettayil, Elamaram Kareem and Paloli Mohammedkutty and then spread to the Opposition starting with the KPCC President as well. However, the official stand continues to be pretty obstinate with gems of wisdom such as denying widening to 45 m even in areas where the land is already available (for example, along the IT Corridor, between Kazhakkoottam and Vizhinjam) just because 30 m is the "official all-party" position and also to withdraw from an agreement to facilitate NH development.

However, all things considered, my guess is that there will be a soft detour back to the 45 m RoW, possibly with a few concessions in the most densely developed areas such as providing flyovers. The State's political leadership would claim any such changes and increases in the compensation package as a resounding victory. We will have to wait till the LSG elections are complete in September to be sure how soon the work on the Rs 10,000 Crore project can restart. A few dozen lakh pairs of fingers and toes will be crossed till then, mine included!

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