Monday, 13 August 2012

Indian toll road concession shows risks in getting PPP wrong

A modern multi-lane expressway should be built to ensure that motorised traffic can avoid all of the risks of surface roads. That means intersections, cyclists, pedestrians and roadside hazards. If a private concessionaire is to be building a road, you’d have thought it should be responsible for all of the infrastructure including lighting. No, not in Haryana State in India.  It's first PPP toll road appears to have involved a serious misjudgment around allocation of responsibilities.

The recently opened Gurgaon-Faridabad toll road has been facing declining traffic at night due to a spate of serious accidents. Why? Because of animals. The Times of India reports that:

cows, bulls, dogs, pigs, goats and even wild antelopes like nilgai wandering on the road. Especially at night, cows and bulls sitting in the middle of the road pose a safety threat to both the commuters and themselves. Even policemen say they can't do much about stray animals: "If you have a road in the middle of a jungle, you will always have the problem of animals wandering on it. But what is noteworthy is the fact that most the cows belong to villagers in the neighbourhood." said Brijwani, traffic policeman posted on the road.

The obvious point is that the road should have been fenced off properly and if there need to be ways for animals to pass over or under it, those routes should have been built, but they weren’t specified. Given how this is the norm in developed countries, it suggests the Indian tendency to not use overseas expertise results in making these sorts of mistakes.

However, even without the fencing, there is the matter of lighting and for some unknown reason the Public Works Department of Haryana retained responsibility for installing lighting and hasn’t got around to it. As a result, in the evenings a lot of traffic returns to the old route because it isn’t safe to travel at speed to encounter cattle. Meanwhile, there is also a problem with speeding due to a lack of enforcement by Police.

This project ought to be a simple lesson in concessioning and should also be a warning to governments that seek to concession to avoid leaving responsibility for any infrastructure matters with local officials.

It should be clear that any private highway concession should include responsibility for infrastructure related safety issues, and that includes lighting, signage and fencing. Concessions can never have responsibility for reckless driver behaviour, but they can have responsibility for ensuring that their infrastructure is reasonably safe for normal users. Haryana state needs to fix this issue swiftly, but I doubt it is well incentivised to act quickly. By contrast, the concessionaire would no doubt happily fix the issue because it is reducing business in the evenings.

Unfortunately, cases like this perpetuate a stereotype of Indian bureaucratic incompetency that is reflected in one comment on the news article:

Not surprised. This is how it happens in India. A malititude of state government agencies will be involved in one project. And for the above road, no difference; one agency will be responsible for constructing the road(reliance), then another for lighting, then another for beautification of the road, then another for flood control, and maybe another to fence the stretch and keep animals off the road(that needs to be done right away) and then another for.....and the story goes on. God bless India officialdom.

It should be obvious that it doesn’t have to be this way.   Note I wrote earlier about the problems this road has with congestion at manual toll booths.  Again, this could all have been avoided had the state civil servants called in expertise from elsewhere.  India has many toll roads.  Shouldn't this sector be organising itself, have regular conferences and be exchanging best practice?

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