Lucknow/Sultanpur/Auraiya: Over two dozen men are frantically at work alongside heavy duty equipment to complete a railway overbridge in Uttar Pradesh’s Sultanpur. This is among the last bit of big work left to be done before the Purvanchal Expressway becomes operational next month, connecting villages and towns dotting eastern UP with Lucknow and Delhi.
Once it opens, the driving time between Delhi and Ghazipur on the eastern border of the state will come down from the current 12 hours to a little over six hours. The Purvanchal Expressway is among its signature projects that the Yogi Adityanath government wants to showcase ahead of assembly elections next year. And not without reason.
UP may still have a lot of catching up to do with the rest of the country on social indicators like health and nutrition but there is one area where it is giving others tough competition — the glistening new blacktop expressways that are coming up, crisscrossing the entire state.
While the Yamuna expressway, which came up in 2012, and the Agra-Lucknow Expressway that opened to public in 2018 started the trend, it is the four upcoming ones — the 340-km Purvanchal, 296-km Bundelkhand, 91-km Gorakhpur Link and the 594-km Ganga expressways — that are scripting a silent transformation in the state, once notorious for its decrepit road infrastructure.
Once these are complete, UP would have a total network of 1,788 km of expressways, the highest in the country. Currently, the total expressway network in India is around 1,822 km. No wonder, the state has earned the sobriquet of ‘Expressway Pradesh’.
The access-controlled road network is being developed by the Uttar Pradesh Expressways Industrial Development Authority (UPEIDA), the agency set up by the state government to steer its expressway expansion programme.
All the four expressways, interlinked, will bring the remotest and backward regions closer to not only state capital Lucknow but also Delhi and beyond, opening up markets and giving a big boost to socio-economic development in the region.
ThePrint was at the Rs 22,496-crore Purvanchal Expressway and Rs 14,709-crore Bundelkhand Expressway sites last week, where work is on at a frenetic pace, to see the changes these new infrastructure are bringing on the ground.
‘Already seeing impact’
Of the four highway projects, the six-lane access-controlled Purvanchal Expressway, connecting eastern UP with Lucknow and Delhi, will be the first to become operational — by May-end this year.
Starting from Chand Saray village, located on the Lucknow-Sultanpur road, it will pass through Barabanki, Amethi, Sultanpur, Ayodhya, Ambedkarnagar and Mau, before terminating at Hyderia village in Ghazipur.
Senior UPEIDA officials, who did not want to be named, said there is a proposal to connect the Purvanchal Expressway to Bihar from Ghazipur.
“We have received a proposal from the Bihar government and are considering it. Once this happens, not only eastern UP but Bihar too would get connected to Delhi through this road network,” a senior UPEIDA official said.
“It will not only reduce the travel time between Ghazipur to Lucknow by half — from 12 hours to six — but will also provide direct connectivity from these places to Delhi, which was not there earlier. This will spur economic activity in eastern UP, bring investment and jobs,” said Awanish Awasthi, UP Home Secretary and Chief Executive, UPEIDA.
The four-lane Bundelkhand Expressway is likely to be completed by March next year, almost a year before schedule and just ahead of the 2022 UP assembly elections. It will connect the backward districts of the region such as Chitrakoot, Banda, Mahoba, Hamirpur, Jalaun, Auraiya and Etawah.
Not only will it bring the remote areas of the region on the expressway network, it will drastically cut down the travel time. For instance, the travel time between Delhi and Chitrakoot district in Bundelkhand will come down to eight hours from 12-14 hours now via the Yamuna, Agra-Lucknow, Purvanchal and Bundelkhand expressways. Currently, there is no direct road link between Delhi and the Bundelkhand region.
The grid will be completed with two more expressways — the Gorakhpur Link Expressway and Ganga Expressway.
The four-lane, Rs 5,876-crore Gorakhpur Link Expressway will connect Gorakhpur, Azamgarh, Ambedkarnagar and Sant Kabirnagar, and the scheduled date for completion the project is April 2022. So far, 14 per cent work has been completed.
The six-lane Ganga Expressway will connect Meerut with Prayagraj (Allahabad). The technical bids for the project have been floated and will be opened on 17 May.
While work is underway on the expressways, UPEIDA is also working on creating industrial hubs around the area. Work is also underway on the defence corridor project, where land is being allotted to defence companies to set up their manufacturing unit.
“The industrial hubs are being developed but we are already seeing the impact of the high speed expressways,” UP’s Additional Secretary (Information) Navneet Sehgal told ThePrint.
“Take for instance the famed mangoes from Malihabad. Mangoes are a highly perishable commodity. But the Agra-Lucknow expressway has meant that the mangoes get transported to Delhi and beyond during the season,” Sehgal added.
It was during Sehgal’s earlier stint in UPEIDA that the Agra-Lucknow Expressway was built.
Awasthi said economic activity is already picking up in the vicinity of expressways.
There is an NTPC power plant and GAIL’s gas-based petrochemical complex in Auraiya in Bundelkhand. “Both will benefit once the Bundelkhand Expressway becomes operational. The connectivity to other parts of the country would become smooth,” said UPEIDA General Manager Rajesh Mohan Gupta, who is handling the Bundelkhand project.
Currently, UP lags behind national averages on the economic front. According to the 15th Finance Commission report, the state has one of the highest rates of unemployment at 6.2 per cent (as against the all India level of 6 per cent).
How the transformation happened
For a state notorious for delayed infrastructure projects, the turnaround did not happen in a day.
The state’s first such project, the Yamuna Expressway, was conceived in 2001 but became operational only in 2012. The Agra-Lucknow expressway project, which was also developed by UPEIDA, didn’t find any takers when it was first bid in 2013. But once UPEIDA decided to fund the project, it was completed in 22 months.
The Purvanchal Expressway will be completed in about 22 months. The Bundelkhand Expressway is expected to open a year ahead of its scheduled deadline.
According to Awasthi, one of the main reasons for the change in work culture was because of the push given to infrastructure development by CM Adityanath. “UPEIDA was empowered to make quick decisions, be it land acquisition, getting forest and environment clearance, shifting utilities, etc. We managed to get environment clearance for Purvanchal and Bundelkhand expressways in record time,” he said.
The fast-track decision-making and availability of unencumbered land ensured that developers promptly came forward to bid. Another reason that developers were confident to take up projects was because UPEIDA did not keep their dues pending for long.
Vilas M. Misal, a project manager at APCO Infratech, one of the contractors for the Purvanchal Expressway project, told ThePrint: “Road projects mainly get stuck because of delay in getting land and environment clearance. Once these aspects have been taken care of, work automatically picks up pace.”
He added: “Also unlike other highway building agencies like NHAI, contractors’ payments are cleared within three days. It was unheard of in a government set up. Cash flow is the main bottleneck in infra projects.”
Except for the Ganga Expressway, the other three are EPC (engineering procurement construction) projects, where the state government funds the entire project cost. UPEIDA has already raised Rs 22,450 crore from a consortium of public sector banks for the Purvanchal, Bundelkhand and Gorakhpur Link expressways. After the projects become operational, UPEIDA will give toll collection rights to a private company every year. The company has to share a portion of the revenue generated from toll with the agency.
For instance, the private toll collection agency for the Agra-Lucknow expressway shared Rs 402 crore with UPEIDA from the revenue it earned from toll last fiscal. “This has given confidence to investors. UPEIDA’s portfolio of projects is very robust, which gives banks the confidence to lend,” said UPEIDA Chief Engineer Manoj Kumar Gupta.
Awasti said developers’ enthusiasm to take up the projects meant UPEIDA actually managed to save money on three of the expressways. “The projects were awarded through e-tendering. In the Purvanchal Expressway, for instance, the minimum tender came down by about 5.19 per cent from the estimated cost. This resulted in a profit of about Rs 614 crore to UPEIDA,” he said.
Similarly, the minimum tender in the Bundelkhand project came down by about 12.72 per cent from the estimated cost, giving a profit of about Rs 1,132 crore. In the Gorakhpur Link Expressway, the minimum tender came down by 3.12 per cent from the estimated cost resulting in a profit of about Rs 98 crore.
Seeing the enthusiastic response from developers, UPEIDA has now decided to take up the Ganga Expressway project on a public private partnership model. “We are hopeful of getting a good response from private developers,” said Awasthi.
This is also the first time that a small stretch of two of the expressways — Agra-Lucknow and Purvanchal — has been converted into an airstrip, for emergency landing of flights.
Land prices shoot up, villagers await jobs & opportunities
The expressway has come as a blessing in disguise for villagers in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bundelkhand, where land prices have more than doubled.
“In our village, the cost of land has gone up from Rs 2.8 lakh per bigha to Rs 5 lakh per bigha. We never imagined that the value of our land will appreciate so much,” said Dharampal Singh, a resident of Baradand village in Sultanpur, adjoining the Purvanchal Expressway. One bigha equals around 0.6 acre.
A majority of villagers here have got handsome compensation in return for their land. “But only a few have invested in new land elsewhere. Most of them have built new houses, bought cars and bikes or wasted the money on alcohol. You will hardly see a house here, which does not have a bike or a car,” said 42-year-old Ghanshyam Yadav, a resident of Sultanpur’s Jarai Kalan village.
Villagers are also irked over the fact that they won’t have direct access to the expressways.
“I agree it will result in economic development but we won’t have direct access. The underpasses are at quite a distance. I will have to travel at least 10 km to reach the entry point of the expressway. It’s impractical,” said 50-year-old Ram Sharan Singh, a resident of Sahav village in Jalaun, through which the Bundelkhand Expressway passes.
But not everybody shares this view. “I have heard that the government is creating industrial hubs in our region. It will create jobs here. We won’t have to go to the cities anymore to earn a living,” said 24-year-old Trilok Nath Dixit, a graduate. He is currently unemployed and helps his family on their farm.
Rajesh Mohan Gupta said underpasses are being built after every 200 metres. “We are building service roads and underpasses to facilitate villagers. But every villager wants underpasses to be built near his house. It’s not possible.”
Unlike the Yamuna Expressway or some other infrastructure projects in the states that saw massive protests from villagers whose land was taken away, the land acquisition process was very smooth for these expressway projects.
“We have given compensation to land owners as per the 2013 law. In 95 per cent of the cases, we are getting the land through mutual agreement,” Awasthi said.