|Vehicles pass through the potholed NH31D in Siliguri. Picture by Biplab Basak|
Siliguri, July 4: The Union ministry of road transport and highways has decided to “entrust” the potholed NH31D to the state public works department (PWD) until a proposed four-laning project, stalled because of a land acquisition block, takes off.
Entrusting the highway to the PWD would mean the road would be a national highway maintained by the state.
The highway, which chief minister Mamata Banerjee in 2012 had refused to take because of its bad condition, would see temporary repairs, according to PWD officials.
PWD officials said it would not be possible to relay the road in the monsoon, so only the craters would be filled up now.
Nirmal Mondal, the executive engineer of PWD (NH-IX division), said today: “A letter has reached the state government, mentioning that they (the Union ministry) are entrusting the highway to the state PWD. Though a formal gazette notification is required for such a step, considering the spirit of the letter we feel such a notification would be done in due time.”
Asked about what this would meant for the highway, he said: “We would, according to the directives of the state, initiate basic repair work, particularly in the Fulbari-Jalpaiguri-Mainaguri-Dhupguri stretch, over a distance of around 70km.” All the places are in Jalpaiguri district.
Prior to becoming the national highway, the road was was called state highway 12A. In 2009, it was entrusted to the NHAI for four-laning, at which point it was renamed NH31D.
The Union ministry mentioned in the letter that the delay in the four-laning was because of “land acquisition”.
Vijay Chibber, a secretary in the Union ministry of road transport and highways (north), in the letter dated June 27 wrote that because of “inordinate delay in land acquisition” for four-laning of NH31D, the highway had been “entrusted to the state PWD”.
Mondal said: “Following this letter, we have been asked by the state government to start repair work. As the monsoon has set in, we have decided to carry out only basic repairs. When the monsoon is over, we will go ahead with thorough repairs.”
While residents of north Bengal would get temporary respite, the four-laning project would remain stuck unless the state is able to acquire and hand over 808 acres to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI).
Since last year, state ministers and the NHAI have held long-winding debates over the repairs. The NHAI wanted to begin four-laning work and did not see the point in carrying out repairs, while the state pressured the highway authority to repair the road first.
According to PWD sources, a meeting was held in January between the NHAI chairman and the state chief secretary on the highway issue.
The chief secretary mentioned the deplorable condition of the highway after which a cost estimation was sought from the PWD for basic repairs.
“We have sent an estimate of Rs 97 crore that is required for repairs. It was forwarded to NHAI officials in Calcutta, who revised it to Rs 78 crore and sent it to Delhi,” Mondal said. In the letter the Union ministry sent to the state, it has been mentioned that the ministry was “processing the proposal with priority”.
“It seems that the ministry would sanction the funds. If necessary, funds for the repairs would be allocated from the state,” Mondal said.
Private bus and truck operators had held a one-day strike last month to protest the pathetic condition of the highway.
In Alipurduar, most private bus owners have taken their vehicles off the highway for the last three months because of wear and tear the buses have suffered.
Commuters are equally hassled as the lack of buses mean dependence on smaller private vehicles.
Local trains in some parts of north Bengal, such as Dhupguri and Mainaguri in Jalpaiguri district, are few. In Mathabhanga subdivision of Jalpaiguri, there is no rail network, making people here totally dependent on buses.
The NHAI, sources said, has selected prospective bidders for four-laning of the highway for which a sum of around Rs 2,200 crore has been sanctioned. The highway authority has sought proposals from the bidders.
“A request for proposals has been sought from them. They need to submit it by August 8, after which the agreement for awarding work would be made,” an NHAI official said.
The NHAI had earlier given data to the Union ministry of economic affairs that showed that nearly 70 per cent of the land required for four-laning of the NH31D was available, but because of problems over 327 hectares (808 acres), the project could not start.
The total land required to make the highway four-lane is 1,072 hectares (2,648 acres).
The total length of NH31D is around 155km and it starts from Ghoshpukur near Siliguri and ends at Salsalabari along the Assam border.
In other parts of the country work on the east-west corridor from Gujarat to Assam, of which NH31D is a part, is almost complete.
The Bengal government’s hands-off land acquisition policy, which has stalled several other projects in south Bengal, has also affected this one.