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Back in the fast lane

Nitin Jairam Gadkari, the Union Minister for Road Transport & Highways and Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises, spoke to Agenda on a wide range of issues concerning his ministries and laid out the roadmap for developmental and economic recovery after COVID-19

In India, over 1,50,000 people died on the roads in 2019. While the number was less in 2020, owing largely to the Coronavirus pandemic, what, in your view, are the main reasons for such a high number of road deaths? Would you say that with the Motor Vehicles Amendment Act, the situation has improved of late? Are people driving better?

It is indeed a matter of grave concern for the country. It is true that a lot many people die in India due to road accidents. In my view, there are four reasons for such high road deaths:

The first is poor road engineering — primarily wrong designs. We have identified these as “black spots”. So far, we have been able to fix nearly 1,200-1,250 black spots. There is still a list of about 3,000 black spots on the National Highways waiting to be fixed, and to improve those, we have made two policies/plans. A plan of Rs 7,000 crore has been approved by Asian Development Bank and another Rs 7,000 crore has been granted by the World Bank.

In this, the Indian Government will contribute 50 per cent. All of this money would be used to fix the black spots or the accident spots.

For the new roads, care has been taken to incorporate the best road engineering, one that includes a lot of preventive measures. Underpasses, bridges and signals have been designed keeping in account multiple cross-sections of roads. We have studied this issue a lot and very carefully and improved upon it.

Two, after a road accident, immediate medical help is required. On this front, we have tried to provide medical vans immediately and saved several lives. Now we are trying to build helipads on roadsides (based on suggestions that this would expedite the help extended to the injured), so they can be shifted quickly to the hospitals and more lives can be saved. Emergency services certainly is the second most important aspect for us.

The third “issue” (if I may call it that) is that of education (or lack of it). It is important that proper education be imparted on the rules of the road. For this, beginning with the primary classes, we are trying to inculcate a sense of discipline and respect for the rules of the road in the younger generation.

Earlier, such messages were put across to people by way of inculcating fear of the law rather than respect for it. We have in the recent past roped in Bollywood celebrities such as Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar, to share the message of road safety and importance of following road rules. These campaigns were carried out on big platforms in order to widen their outreach and create more awareness among the masses.

The fourth aspect is enforcement. As you might be aware, for the first time, we studied the vehicle rules of seven-eight countries across the globe (with the help of the World Bank) and came up with a modern Act (which has since been ratified by Parliament). Owing to this, rigorous implementation of the laws and rules is being carried out, and we have incorporated an intelligent traffic system for road safety. For example, if a car crosses a red signal, the camera will immediately capture a photo and the fine slip would be sent directly to your house.

So while we are consistently working on all four aspects, I must share that much more is being thought of and planned at the Government level to make the roads safer for our public. We all are very sensitive to this issue.

The number of fatalities in the age group of 18-35 is more than 60 per cent. By way of such accidents, we lose about three per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). And this is no small number.

With help from the World Bank, Tamil Nadu’s incumbent Government has done commendable work in this area and reduced the number of accidents and casualties by 25 per cent. However, one thing stands true: Due to Covid-19, the on-road traffic was light and, naturally, the number of accidents has reduced to a large extent.

Despite the current scenario, sincere attempts have been made in this direction by the Tamil Nadu and other State Governments in which the National Highways, state highways, district roads and city highways are under the scanner. We have started working on various projects at different levels to increase awareness. Recently, a road safety council was also set up. We are working on this very seriously.

We had set our sights on reducing accidents and deaths by 50 per cent in the next 30 years. I made this declaration in Stockholm, asserting India’s commitment to make our roads safer and accident-free. We will definitely reduce accidents and deaths by 50 per cent before 2024. This is my belief. We and all other stakeholders are working very seriously and speedily to achieve this end.

Also, due to the new Act, the control over rule violators has increased. The punishments have become more severe, the amount of fines has increased and automobile engineering has also seen a lot of improvement. I have asked the automobile manufacturers to put in airbags even in economy models. Overall, I feel that the results in the forthcoming years will be good and we are sensitive towards this issue.

One of the best things to have happened is the help given to the Government by the media, both electronic and print, in spreading awareness and putting out the importance of this issue in the public domain. It has received good response, too.

Sir, you just spoke on need for better road safely education. Due to the pandemic, shared mobility services like Uber and Ola have been hit and various new drivers and aggregators have emerged. How do you plan to educate these people? Even in schools, do you think driving training should be given and included in the syllabus? How do you get the new drivers to follow it?

There is a shortage of about 22 lakh drivers in our country. The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship has also made some plans and policies, but there still remains a vast shortage of drivers. I have decided that I will not allow driverless cars to enter India because our country is poor and driving provides a source of employment.

While on this issue, let me tell you that our plans were stayed by the Tamil Nadu High Court so we couldn’t go ahead. There are about 100-150 driving schools in our country, whereas we need about 2,000 driving schools. These driving schools have to come up primarily not in big cities like Mumbai, Delhi or Pune but in tribal/backward areas where the socially and economically backward people live; places which are poor and aspiring districts, where there is no employment…

I am happy to announce that we now have a new plan. In this plan, there is provision for driving training schools. During my tenure, I aim to open at least 1,000 driving training schools across the country. We have already prepared a scheme for this. We will not only back every such school, we would also help set up new institutes, which would also provide the fitness and pollution certificates. To achieve that certain machines are also being procured. This is being done to lower the pollution levels on the one hand and to generate new employment even in the private sector, on the other. This is the attempt we are making and now the new rules will hasten the process.

The last question about road safety is that recently there was a lot of controversy about the Global NCAP test in which various popular cars failed but India’s own manufactures — Mahindra and Tata — performed very well. As Bharat NCAP is set to start from this year, do you think the cars will now become safer and would you want to say anything about the Global NCAP results?

Here, I’d like to share that India’s public transport system definitely needs to be strengthened. In our country, more than 18 crore vehicles have been registered. Given the growing number of cars owned per family, parking issues are increasingly growing, especially in the big cities.

So, we are trying to encourage people to switch to public transport by  offering great connectivity (for instance, from Mumbai to Pune and Mumbai to Nashik). We also plan to introduce double-decker AC buses, with economy class at the lower level and executive class at the upper. Just as in flights, food and beverages will be provided on board and these buses will run on bio-fuel.

In some of the hill regions, besides ropeways and cable cars, funicular railways are being planned. These take less time to build and cause much less pollution. We are also making the E-highways electric. The Mumbai-Delhi highway is being built at a cost of Rs 1 lakh crore and 30-40 per cent work has already been accomplished. This highway will be completed in about two years and people will be able to travel from one metro to the other in about 12 hours. A pilot project for this is in the works.

We are trying to introduce various innovative technologies. For instance, for the very first time in our country, we have initiated a project in Nagpur which has received approval from railways, the Maharashtra Government and the Urban Affairs Ministry. It is called Broad Gauge Metro. As against Rs 350 crore per km that is being spent to build a Metro line, the Broad Gauge Metro would cost only Rs 5 crore per km to build. We have made use of the existing broad gauge and made an eight-boxed Broad Gauge Metro which will run from Gondia to Nagpur, Nagpur to Amravati, Amravati to Narkhed and from Narkhed to Nagpur, then from Nagpur to Chandrapur to Ramtek.

This entire 850-900 km broad gauge line is being used to replace the standard gauge with eight-boxed broad gauge double-decker in which passengers can sit on both the upper and lower levels. It will have an AC first class chair car and a second class chair car. In addition, there will be one box for milk, fruits and vegetables and one box for restaurants. It will work just like an airline. This Broad Gauge Metro will travel at the speed of about 160km/hr as compared to our passenger car which has the speed of about 40km/hr and express which goes at 60km/hr.

To put it in straightforward terms, this Broad Gauge Metro will replace passenger cars on Delhi to Chandigarh and Delhi to Jaipur route and the travellers would be able to book a seat for themselves just as they do for airlines. This would fetch the Government good revenue and cut down on our losses, and people would be able to travel more comfortably. The distance of 250 km would be covered in two hours straight.

The Metro will stop at every station for about a minute and then quickly gain speed. This technology is also in place and we have worked a lot on it. Basically, public transport on electricity is much more beneficial for people from the perspectives of pollution, ticket cost and safety.

I would also like to share that recently, we made a jalmarg on River Ganga — from Varanasi to Haldia and from Prayagraj to Varanasi. And now we have given a proposal to the World Bank for a similar project on River Yamuna from Delhi to Mathura, Mathura to Agra, Agra to Etawah and from Etawah to Prayagraj. So if we go on water, decidedly public transport and waterways are the cheapest.

Here, I must share that I have fulfilled my promise as the Transport Minister to make airplanes land on water. An amphibious aircraft service has been launched in Gujarat which touches down both on water and land. The day is not far when such amphibious aircraft will start operating widely in our country.

Not just cars, scooters and buses, but new innovations have been devised comprising electric buses, trolley buses, double-decker buses, public transport running on electricity, Broad Gauge Metro, amphibious planes and suchlike to bring about a transport revolution. I am working hard with my team to bring about all the changes in the transport sector. Hundred new airports are being currently constructed; naturally dams will become water ports and rivers will be used to build a new network which will reduce accidents, pollution and expenditure while being sustainable and comfortable.

You have recently announced highway projects specific to the Northeast. Can you tell us a bit more about that connect in the remote areas?

In the Northeast, we are currently working on projects worth about Rs 1 lakh crore. We are building six bridges on the Brahmaputra river and, in many places of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Tripura, we have put in a lot of work to create good road network. India is changing and so is the Northeast. Even in Jammu & Kashmir, we are building tunnels at a cost of Rs 11,000 crore. Work on Zoji La has started and the road to Mansarovar is almost 85 per cent complete.

There have been some issues regarding the Char Dham project following the Supreme Court verdict which I feel will be resolved soon. In the Northeast, we are making a number of bridges on the Brahmaputra river and several roads are coming up in the backward areas.

I am greatly inspired by a quote by American President John F Kennedy which states: “American roads are not good because America is rich, but America is rich because American roads are good.” Roads bring prosperity and now Arunachal, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, all have good roads.

To move on to MSMEs, now that Aatmanirbhar Bharat being our big slogan, what plans or policies have been made to benefit the MSMEs in bringing in and conducting businesses?

The idea of Aatmanirbhar Bharat is that India must be turned into a happy, prosperous, strong and No. 1 global economy, and to do this we have to reduce our imports and increase our exports. We have to upgrade our technologies and our primary aim should be to prepare and produce in India whatever things we import today. Without compromising on the quality, we have to reduce the production costs, power costs, labour costs and logistic costs. These factors make for the basis of our work in sector.

The best example for this is that our automobile sector is in talks for electric cars, electric buses, electric two-wheelers, electric trucks, so slowly ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, bio CNG, electric, hydrogen fuels are coming into India and, through these, a major change is underway in the MSME sector.

I believe that in the future, we will definitely become a large exporting economy. The sector currently contributes 30 per cent to our GDP but we will soon increase that to about 40 per cent. Our country’s total export owing to MSMEs is 48 per cent and we plan to increase that to 60 per cent. We have created 11 crore jobs in the past five years and we are attempting to create 5 crore new jobs.

Our village industry has a turnover of Rs 80,000 crore and, in two years, we aim to increase it to Rs 5 lakh crore. For this we have identified sectors, tool rooms, technology centres, new innovations for skilled workers and designs. I believe that in the coming times, this sector will become the backbone of development and economy. And our attempts, including the packages handed out by the Prime Minister, will be used. I feel that positive results will be seen in the next two years.

In the interim, our GDP had fallen for a while but there has been a significant rise in this quarter and slowly there will be a rise in every quarter. Currently, due to Covid-19, we are in a lot of trouble, even our economy has faced a lot of challenges but soon we will defeat the virus and will be a developing economy going forward.

You have been talking about FDI which has also been affected by the pandemic. So is there a plan or policy in place to fix this?

On a large scale, we are trying to take MSMEs towards the stock market. We have done funding of Rs 20,000 crore and the MSMEs which have a good turnover, which file income tax returns and have a good track record, besides maintaining a good bank and GST record, we will rate them and when they go to the capital market, they will be awarded with 15 per cent by the Indian Government. That is our policy and work has already started on this front.

In our country, insurance economy, pension economy and share economy is fairly lagging in comparison to the world, so if we go into stock market, it will really benefit the MSMEs. Besides, if the various MSMEs, which are earning profits and exporting material, go into the capital market, public money will definitely be involved. A very good aspect in all of it is that, now when we deposit money in the banks we get low interest, but we will slowly ask people to invest in MSME shares so that the share value increases along with the return value. With all these attempts, I am hopeful that a positive impact will be seen within a year.

A bit about the FASTag system that comes into place soon…

Till now, the FASTag system is about 75 per cent complete and from February 15, 2021, FASTag would be mandatory for all. Everyone would have to go through FASTag only, so there will be seamless traffic. In time, you won’t even see toll booths, there will only be cameras which will scan your vehicle details when you enter. A photo will be clicked at the point of exit and that amount of toll will be deducted from your bank account. This entire system would be seamless and will be operative in the country in about two-three years. Soon, there will be no need to stop at the toll plazas.

There is a similar system in place in Portugal…that there is no stoppage, there is only a card reader, no need to pay so through this, will the efficiency also increase on the highways?

Our toll income has been Rs 24,000 crore as of now. In spite of Covid-19 travel restrictions and other hiccups, our estimate is that it will go up to Rs 34,000 crore. Rs 10,000 crore would increase owing to the reduction in thefts and when this system will be 100 per cent operative in the next five years, the NH toll income will be more than Rs 1 lakh crore. So this is a major positive change due to the digitised system; all thefts and loopholes will be eliminated and there will be a lot of benefits.

You spoke of intelligent traffic system among other things… What do you think would really improve through better technology, traffic behaviour and management?

Technology has the power to impact a lot of lives. What we do need to do is change people’s mindset and behaviour. There has to be fear as well as respect towards the law and the law must be followed. For this, education not just in schools but also public education, is very important in which the road safety council would include NGOs, educational institutes, universities, newspaper organizations and the media.

With the help of all these, public campaigns will be launched to make people aware of both technology and changing people’s mindset and behavior. Even students and children — basically all future citizens — are also being educated in this aspect. When all the stakeholders make positive attempts, only then will we get positive, foreign-like results.

Sunday, 03 January 2021 | Kushan Mitra / Navneet Mendiratta

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