In a bid to turn a crisis into opportunity amidst the damage caused by COVID-19,the state governments are to re-start highway construction projects where migrant labourers can be gainfully employed, as announced by Union minister Nitin Gadkari.

The Union Minister for Road Transport, Highways and MSMEs , Mr Gadkari said, via a video-conference, that talks are on with state governments for facilitating the safe return of migrant labourers, an estimated 20 lakh of whom are in shelters pan-India.

“I had a meeting with road sector officials. Work can be re-started at projects with condition that adequate measures are taken for safeguard against coronavirus. We have to follow the guidelines. At some places, collectors have given permission, some not. We are doing a follow up along with the chief secretaries of the states,” the minister said.

Approximately, 20 lakh migrant labourers are stuck in shelters or have gone back to villages and in view of the Disaster Management Act being in place, district collectors can take a decision on it, informed the minister.

“As I have said and believe, we can turn any problem into an opportunity, we need to focus on highways building with renewed vigour…Highways sector has faced many obstacles due to coronavirus. In coming years we will have to give the highest priority to the infrastructure sector. To accelerate the economy, infrastructure is needed.”

Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways

The Minister further informed that a committee has already been set up and the work needs to be commenced on a war footing on highway projects, including the Rs 1 lakh crore Delhi-Mumbai new expressway which would usher in development of backward and far-flung areas of Rajasthan, Haryana, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

Reiterating that the government has saved a massive Rs 16,000 crore on land acquisition as it is on a new alignment, the minister urged companies to come forward for setting up manufacturing hubs and clusters along the highway to boost economic growth.

He also said, that work on some other stretches also needs to be accelerated, like the Dehradun-Haridwar highway in view of the upcoming Kumbh Mela as it would not be possible to widen the highway during the event.

In order to build the Dehradun-Haridwar highway talks are on with the state government officials for permission to start work while following all norms, including social distancing and sanitisation to prevent COVID-19.

“As soon as we get permissions from the state government, we will start the construction work. Contractors will work in adherence to the norms while keeping safe for coronavirus. We will adhere to all guidelines,” he said.

Gadkari said the highways ministry plans to construct more than double the highways constructed in the last fiscal.

“We have plans to do more than double or thrice the work we did this year (2019-20). To accelerate economy, road sector will do good work. In view of the lockdown the government will soon decide how to resume work as once rain comes highways construction gets difficult,” he said.

According to an official, the NHAI has accomplished construction of 3,979 kms of national highways in the financial year 2019-20. This has been the highest ever highway construction achieved in a fiscal by NHAI. It had recorded construction of 3,380 km in the 2018-19.

The government has envisioned an ambitious highway development programme—Bharatmala Pariyojana—which includes development of about 65,000 kms of national highways.

Speaking on the supply chain and transportation issues, Gadkari said all chief ministers have already been requested to streamline transport, while Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust has started exporting containers also.

“By and large transport has started.We are in constant touch. For smooth supply of goods cooperation from drivers, cleaners and other stakeholders is needed. We will win the coronavirus fight and convert the problems into opportunity,” the minister said.

The transporters have demanded an immediate relief package for the sector, claiming that livelihood of about 1 crore truckers was in peril due to the lockdown.

The outbreak of coronavirus pandemic and the resultant lockdown has led to idling of more than 90 per cent of about 1 crore truckers, they have said.

As per All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC), more than 4 lakh truckers with goods under non-essential categories are still stranded across India, while goods worth about Rs 40,000 crore are lying in vehicles in the absence of unloading mechanism as well as reluctance on part of godowns, owners and others.