ETC has been spoken about for quite some time now but it does not seem to have fructified the way it was expected to. So what are the challenges in implementing it?
No doubt, we have been talking and working towards ETC lanes in toll plazas of National Highways but a bulk of all the 358 of them has been connected only this year. Equipping all the toll plazas with hardware and software has happened recently, i.e., 8-12 months back. So that is certainly a great jump forward.
The second aspect is the integration of payment systems because all these toll plazas are linked with some or other payment body. So how do you bring the various banks and open up the entire thing to enable new players to join on one open platform? That is a challenge for which the system is being developed since the past few months. A MoU has been signed by NHAI and National Payments Corporation of India after which NPCI has become the system integrator. And now, the systems have been tested to make an open platform available for all banks. It will be taken forward to all banking solutions including the mobile payment solution. So, we are working towards all that and development has been very fast since the couple of months.
ETC lanes are one aspect of seamless travel. There is another one, that of tolls. The situation all over the country is such that despite paying tolls, road users do not get well-maintained roads, nor are the craters filled regularly. So, is there a strict policy from the Ministry to take care of these aspects?
Maintenance cannot be linked with tolls because toll collection is primarily to offset the cost of investment made by the investor. Since many BOT based projects have come into operation, the toll is to offset the investment. The toll also comes into the government’s coffers because huge investments are to be made by the government in many projects. So, maintenance is entirely another key issue. The quality of roads and vehicular movement have to be very comfortable. The central road funds (CRF) are allocated by the central government to all the state governments on a formula based manner for upgrading and improving the stretches of the national highways. The Ministry is also carrying out a huge exercise of upgrading the two lanes to four-lanes all over the country. So, the targets that have been set for the Ministry itself envisage very systematic preparation of DPRs which should be made with the right kind of technology. They are implementable on the ground in a much more compressed time-frame, which is happening now. The use of technology is to modernize the systems of road construction so that the quality of roads is much better and maintained for longer duration. This is another area where ministry is investing in a very big way. We are also trying to put in place the system of virtual monitoring. In the next few months, the ramping up of the use of technology would be visible in a very big way. Primarily, we will be improving our entire system of construction and upgrading our highways.
What immediate steps have been taken for road safety, especially during the golden hours?
We are well aware of the concept of ‘golden hour’, and we have been trying to put much more micro-level co-ordination in place between the highway police which rushes to the spot, the accident management system through ambulances and the hospitals which have to offer the treatment. So, there has been a huge effort. That is why when we talk about road safety, there are two important aspects: 1) Engineering advocacy in terms of taking cognizance of rash & drunken driving and crash-barriers. 2) Post-event management under which we are, again, talking about bringing all stakeholders together and realizing it through partnerships with state governments. The accidents on the stretches of highways are within the jurisdiction of some state or the other. Everybody is very concerned about these issues. Everybody wants to put their maximum efforts to have a much more holistic and systematic response mechanism out there. So, we are working towards it. The focus of the government has sharpened and intensified in ways that were not there earlier. Road safety is also one of our key areas of concern and this government and the ministry are taking all necessary steps.
If traffic police are involved in the process of designing and construction of roads, many congestion areas and dark spots can be taken care of. But they come into the picture much after planning and execution of projects gets completed. Can the ministry do something about it?
The quality of DPRs, use of technology to have much more accurate road designs which take into account potential congested zones and timelines of implementation are certainly the areas the Ministry is focusing on, but how traffic police uses the road network to design its traffic movement plans lies within the realms of the police and home department. I will not be able to comment on how they are doing but certainly the idea is to take their suggestion on board as well. And use the solutions that offer us opportunities to reduce the problem of congestion by the right application of technology. So going forward, we would certainly be deploying these technologies and systems to decongest our city roads and make safe, secure and seamless movement a reality.