New Delhi: Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari Monday expressed disapproval of the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF)’s tardiness, four years after the then finance minister Arun Jaitley announced the setting up of the body to invest equity into infrastructure sector.
“We are willing to take maximum funds from you. But you are not the only one. There are many people in the queue waiting to give funds to us,” Gadkari said of the quasi-sovereign wealth fund.
“If you delay then we have the option to go with other financiers.”
The Union minister’s comments came at an NIIF event, held at Transport Bhawan in the national capital, to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) for investing equity in road projects.
NIIF chief executive Sujay Bose was present on the dais when Gadkari ticked off the government-backed fund.
The government has 49 per cent equity in NIIF, which has a planned corpus of Rs 40,000 crore.
Gadkari said though Jaitley had announced the creation of NIIF in 2015 but the NIIF but the highways sector has not got anything so far. “At that time when our Prime Minister travelled abroad, especially to Abu Dhabi, they had promised to make big investment in India. At that time Jaitley ji had thought of an institution like NIIF where funds will come, which can be spent on infrastructure. …We have got lot of investment offers but we have not got any investment from NIIF.”
‘Time is biggest capital’
On Monday, Nitin Gadkari said the NHAI has enough appetite for funds with projects like the Rs 7.5-lakh crore Bharatmala — under which 24,000-km of highways will be built across India — kicking off.
“We will be spending Rs 7.5 lakh crore to build 24,000 km under phase-I of the Bharatmala. There have been no provision in the budget for the program. We have to raise the entire fund,” the highways minister said.
The NIIF can invest in the projects but delay can prove counter-productive, said the minister.
“They (NIIF) have ready capital available. In the last four years many people have promised and put their money with NIIF. But the time NIIF is taking to give us money, I don’t like saying this in public, but they need to improve the time,” Gadkari said.
To drive home the point of what a delay can do, Gadkari narrated an incident when he visited Singapore along with a team of officers.
“One company, which I won’t name, despite promising did not give us fund on time. Later they came to meet me in Delhi and said they want to invest in NHAI projects. But I told them ‘I am sorry, I don’t need your funds right now’.
“I don’t want a similar thing happen with you also that you delay so much that we get funds from other sources,” said Gadkari.
The minister added that if NIIF wanted to make the most of the opportunity then it should take a blanket approval required for government projects and make the process transparent and fast.
“The highways sector is economically viable and by and large, the projects that we are doing — four- and six-lane highways and expressways — will give good returns,” he said.
Gadkari said he had told Jaitley that NHAI should be allowed to raise funds for its projects instead of NIIF. It would have been faster, he said.
“But Jaitley ji said that the government will have to only do this. It’s a good thing that government is doing it. You (NIIF) have done good work after you came but remember time is the biggest capital,” he said.
‘Important to get structure right’
NIIF CEO Sujay Bose, however, said it is important to get the structures right.
“Most of the NHAI’s monetisation so far has been post construction. What we are trying to do here is see if we can get the capital to come in at the time of construction,” said Bose.
“It’s more important to get the structure right… I think it is important for the country to get some of these structures correct so that we can actually use them to really scale up. I don’t want to say we should rush into them.”
How NIIF failed to invest in highway sector
The Modi government had set up the NIIF in 2015 to meet the growing fund requirements of India’s infrastructure sector.
The NIIF’s mandate is to bring long-term capital from alternate investors like pension and sovereign funds from other countries to invest in large infra projects such as highways, airports, etc., in India. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) is one of NIIF’s partners.
However, the NIIF hasn’t yet invested any equity in India’s highway sector.
The fund had made a failed bid for the highways ministry’s programme to monetise public funded highways under the toll-operate-transfer (TOT) model in 2017. Under TOT, a private entity takes over completed highway project and runs it for a fixed tenure of 25-30 years and gets to keep the toll.
In February this year, it made another failed bid to develop and operate four airports in India.
It has, however, partnered with Dubai Ports to set up an investment platform, Hindustan Infralog, to invest up to $3 billion in ports, transportation and logistics business.