UP Is Building The Longest Expressway Network In The Country. Meet Awanish Awasthi, The Man Steering This Mega Project To The Finish Line
When Yogi Adityanath came to power in 2017, Uttar Pradesh had two functional expressways — the 165-kilometre-long Yamuna Expressway, which links Agra with the National Capital Region, and the Lucknow-Agra Expressway, stretching 302 km. These projects were completed over a period of nine years between 2008 and 2017.
But when it completes five years in office in 2022, less than 15 months from now, the Yogi Adityanath government would have finished work on three expressways — the 340-km-long Purvanchal Expressway, the 296-km-long Bundelkhand Expressway and the 91-km-long Gorakhpur Link Expressway. Work on the state’s sixth and longest, the 594-km-long Ganga Expressway, would have begun by then.
In fact, the Purvanchal Expressway, the first of the three currently under construction, would be ready as early as the first quarter of 2021. Work on the project began in October 2018. It was largely a plan on paper in March 2017, when the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party government, which envisioned it, lost power to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
How has Uttar Pradesh managed to execute a greenfield project at such a pace when mega infrastructure projects in many states, like Maharashtra, are facing delays due to tricky clearance requirements and trickier land acquisition?
If you ask Awanish Awasthi, the man steering UP’s expressway projects to the finish line, it is the political will that has made all the difference.
In April 2017, just weeks after Adityanath took charge as the Chief Minister of the state, Awasthi was appointed as the Chief Executive Officer of the Uttar Pradesh Expressways Industrial Development Authority (UPEIDA), the agency responsible for the planning and construction of e-ways in the state.
His appointment was not a result of the administrative rejig that follows every change of guard in Lucknow. Awasthi, who had served as the District Magistrate of Gorakhpur in 2002-03, in the early years of Adityanath’s career as Lok Sabha MP, was recalled to the state from the Centre ahead of time to take up the posting. He was serving as a joint secretary in the Ministry of Social Justice at the Centre.
“The Chief Minister is very clear that expressways will bring a complete change in the infrastructure status of the state. They will open up the backward areas for industry, and improve connectivity. He has stressed on the importance of expressways repeatedly,” Awashti told Swarajya, hinting that the will to deal with tricky issues such as land acquisition exists in the government.
Land acquisition in Uttar Pradesh, like most other states, has always been tricky. The Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party government learned the lesson the hard way in 2011, when its efforts to acquire land as part of the Yamuna Expressway project, the state’s first e-way, led to fierce protests in the twin villages of Bhatta and Parsaul in Western UP, giving the Congress the opportunity to launch its now infamous dharna.
“He [Chief Minister Adityanath] has supported the expressway projects to the hilt and has taken the lead himself,” Awasthi, who is also serving as Additional Chief Secretary, adds.
This political will has ensured that land acquisition for UP’s multiple expressways has not faced delays, and the projects have remained largely on track despite some disruption in work during the Covid-19 lockdown.
“The Purvanchal Expressway is now around 70 per cent complete and we hope to open it for traffic in the first quarter of next year,” Awasthi said.
The Purvanchal Expressway, Awasthi says, will “act as the reed ki haddi or backbone of Eastern Uttar Pradesh”, and open up some of the most backward areas.
“On the northern side (of the expressway) is Gorakhpur, on the southern side is Prayagraj, and we are going into districts like Barabanki, Amethi, Sultanpur, Ayodhya, Ambedkar Nagar, Azamgarh, Mau and Ghazipur, where connectivity is needed”.
“Reaching Azamgarh from Lucknow took at least four to five hours earlier,” Awasthi says, adding, “now, within two to two and a half hours one can go to Azamgarh from Lucknow. That will be a major advantage of the expressway.”
With the construction of the Purvanchal Expressway, he says, “we’ll have a road link from the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, right from the Ghazipur [Uttar Pradesh-Bihar] border, through…the Agra Expressway and the Yamuna Expressway, to the National Capital [on the western border of Uttar Pradesh]”
The Purvanchal Expressway will link Ghazipur with Lucknow, the state capital, which in turn is linked to the National Capital Region through the Lucknow-Agra Expressway and Yamuna (Agra-Greater Noida) Expressway.
“Uttar Pradesh will become the first state to have an expressway stretching across its entire length,” the UPEIDA CEO told Swarajya.
To connect Gorakhpur, the seat of the Gorakhnath Peeth which Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath continues to head as mahant, with the Purvanchal Expressway, a 92-km-long link expressway is being built.
Originating in Gorakhpur, the expressway it will pass through two districts — Kabir Nagar and Ambedkar Nagar, and join the Purvanchal e-way in Azamgarh.
The Gorakhpur Link Expressway is around 7 per cent complete and UPEIDA plans to open it for traffic sometime in the first quarter of 2022, Awasthi says.
Expressways, Not Highways
Asked why Uttar Pradesh decided to go for expressway instead of building four-lane highways, he said expressways are essential to bring industries to the state.
“A four-lane road which doesn’t have access control will slow down movement. That’s the issue,” Awasthi said, adding, “if you want to make the state a 1 trillion dollar economy, expressways are absolutely necessary.”
“UP is a very big state and our view is that unless and until we improve connectivity we can’t move forward in the long run. These expressways are projects which are going to be there for the next 50 to 100 years. Once you open an area through expressways, it leads to a lot of qualitative change in the environment.”
“If you want to bring industrialisation in a large state like UP, you need to have expressways so that connectivity to the areas concerned is good. For example, no industry will go to Bundelkhand unless there is good connectivity.”
Expressways will also help promote tourism, he adds.
“If someone can travel to Chitrakoot from Delhi in five and a half hours, why wouldn’t he go there, spend time as a tourist and come back? If going to Chitrakoot from Delhi takes nine hours, then the person going there has to plan for three days — one day for going, one day for seeing the place and one for the return journey. That, generally, people will not accept. That’s why we have gone for expressways,” Awasthi says.
“This experiment is also there in the state of Maharashtra, where they built the Pune-Mumbai Expressway. It was one of the first expressways in the country. Now they are building another one. We are much faster than other states, and we are making more expressways than almost all states combined,” he added.
The cost of building expressways, he said, is not an issue.
“Banks have been very positive with us. We have got very low interest rates for the loans we have taken. We have taken almost around Rs 22,000 crore of loans,” Awasthi told Swarajya, adding, “Our revenue on the expressways has shot up very strongly, so we are also creating infrastructure which will be able to, at least partially, pay back its cost. So cost is not a major issue”.
The UPEIDA CEO says that this 296-km-long expressway, already under construction, was the “Chief Minister’s vision for the Bundelkhand region”.
“He was the one who initiated the process saying the state should have an expressway right from the border of Madhya Pradesh, passing through Chitrakoot, Banda, Mahoba, Hamirpur, Jalaun, Auraiya and Etawah and linking the region to Delhi,” Awasthi adds.
“We expect to start traffic on the main carriageway by the end of next year, or January 2022,” Awasthi told Swarajya, adding that the expressway will “form the basic infrastructure for districts in the Bundelkhand region”.
The Bundelkhand Expressway, which is around 32 per cent complete now, will join the Lucknow-Agra Expressway in Etawah, linking the semi-arid and drought-prone region to the National Capital Region through the Lucknow-Agra and Yamuna expressways. It is critical for the success of the UP Defence Corridor as some of its proposed nodes, like Jhansi and Chitrakoot, lie in the Bundelkhand region.
With the Purvanchal, Gorakhpur Link and Bundelkhand expressways already under construction, UPEIDA has shifted focus towards Ganga Expressway.
“The Chief Minister has asked us to get the land required for the Ganga Expressway in place in the next six months and then start work by June-July next year,” Awasthi said.
The Ganga Expressway, stretching around 594 km, will pass through the districts of Meerut, Hapur, Bulandshahar, Amroha, Sambhal, Badaun, Shahjahanpur, Hardoi, Unnao, Rai Bareli, Pratapgarh and Prayagraj.
“Ganga Expressway was tried by an earlier government but the plan didn’t materialise,” Awasthi told Swarajya, adding that the High Court had stayed the project back then.
“Earlier, the Ganga Expressway was conceptualised on the banks of the Ganga. The Ganga is a national river and there is a Ganga Authority. All clearances for the Ganga Expressway require clearances from the National Ganga Authority. That was not taken [when the project was planned earlier]. So the High Court, sometime in 2008 or 2009, stayed the project saying the government needs to have the requisite environment clearance, which had not been taken,” he said.
“Now, what we have done is move the road away from the bank because any eco sensitive zone will require a lot of approvals which we have avoided. We have kept the road at a safe distance from the river bank, and we have tried to bring the road closer to district headquarters. This is a better model we think. If the road is closer to the district headquarters, it will make connectivity better,” Awasthi added.
“We plan to have 90 per cent of land in place by June 2021. If the constriction starts in the second half of 2021, we can have it in place by the end of 2023, say about 30 months,” he said, talking about the timeline for the completion of the project.
The construction of the Ganga Expressway, he said, will cost around Rs 40,000 crore, adding that the government is open to all models of funding.
“We are open to all models of funding. It could have international funding, national-level funding through PPP, it could also have EPC mode of funding. It is a project which requires a large investment. As it is, banks have already proposed about Rs 15,000 crore for the project,” Awasthi told Swarajya.
The officer confirmed that the agency was looking at monetising existing stretches of expressways in the state to generate funding for the Ganga Expressway.
“Timelines are there but we’re going to do it for the first time so we would not put a target for it. But we’ll move fast on this because the Ganga Expressway will be partially funded through monetisation,” Awasthi said.
When all the expressways that Uttar Pradesh is working on are complete, almost every second district of the state will have an expressway passing through it.