Ministry delaying highways: HC
The Delhi High Court seems to have hit upon the root cause of why crucial highway projects across the country have been moving at a
snail's pace in the past few years. And the discovery has left the court both shocked and angry.
The HC found that the ministry of surface transport and highways was indulging in "day to day interference" into the affairs of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), a statutory body granted functional autonomy by Parliament.
The court was so aghast by the fact that NHAI has seen five chairmen in the past two-and-a-half years that it recommended that a law be enacted to ensure that heads of public enterprises have fixed tenures of 3 to 5 years.
A division bench comprising Justices Mukul Mudgal and Manmohan said the Law Commission and Centre should seriously consider bringing in such a law which "in our opinion will ensure transparency, efficiency and accountability".
The HC's stinging indictment comes close on the heels of widespread criticism of Union surface transport minister T R Baalu's reported role in the recent change of guard in the NHAI, which saw N Gokulram being transferred out. There have also been allegations of repeated interference by the ministry resulting in stalling of key highway projects across India.
"The actions of the Union of India...indicates that not only autonomy granted to NHAI by Parliament through a statute enacted in this regard has been curtailed and eroded, but NHAI is sought to be reduced to a mere department of the ministry of road transport and highways," an anguished HC noted.
The court discovered through evidence tabled before it how the ministry kept forwarding bidders to NHAI, asking the latter to re-evaluate their applications even though NHAI had finalized its bidding process for the Hyderabad project.
So glaring was the government meddling as exposed by circulars sent by the ministry which were placed before HC that one of the judges, Justice Manmohan, decided to record a separate opinion. He deplored the ministry's habit of tinkering with NHAI's bidders list for projects and saw this as a "usurpation of NHAI's jurisdiction".
When it was brought to HC's notice by one of the petitioners, Madhucon Projects, how the NHAI chairmen had been repeatedly replaced, the judges said, "Frequent changes of the chairman of a public authority militates against the concept of an independent authority and makes any chairman vulnerable to pulls and pressures, besides creating administrative chaos and preventing implementation of any long term strategy."
Such was the extent of ministry's meddling that NHAI had admitted in an affidavit that "revaluation of the bids had been done only in accordance with the directions of the ministry."