Two years ago, a day after the 75th birthday of the Samajwadi Party (SP) supremo, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav held a grand celebration for his father to mark the event. Mulayam laid the foundation stone for the Agra-Lucknow expressway that very day, and as he took the dais to make a speech, he said: “Jab hum mukhyamantri thhe, tab shilanyas ke samay hi udghatan ki tareekh bhi tay ho jati thi (when I was chief minister, we would decide the inauguration date at the time of laying the foundation).” He then called upon Chakresh Jain, the director of one of the companies constructing the expressway, asking when the project would be complete. When Jain said it would take two years, Mulayam replied, “I am cutting two months. You have to complete this expressway in 22 months.
Construction began in earnest in January the following year. 23 months later, on the eve of his 77th birthday, he got his wish: amidst a ceremony that included Sukhoi and Mirage fighter jets performing test landings, Mulayam inaugurated the 302-kilometre-long Agra-Lucknow expressway. Incidentally, it was Mulayam who, as defence minister in the H.D. Deve Gowda government, had cleared the Sukhoi deal.
The expressway is expected to bring cheer to many. Noida-based Nishant Arora, 35, could not meet his parents this Diwali in Lucknow because he could not get a confirmed railway ticket, and did not want to hazard the 10-hour journey by road. Before the Agra-Lucknow expressway, only part of his journey-from Noida to Agra via the 165-km-long Yamuna expressway-would have taken him on a high-speed highway. Now, the state government claims the travel time from Agra to Lucknow has been reduced to just three-and-a-half hours, reducing Nishant’s journey to under six hours. In the run-up to the 2017 assembly election, Akhilesh hopes to showcase the expressway as one of the highlights of his administration. It will help him counter the BJP’s claim of being the development-oriented party. “If you double the speed, you’ll triple the economy,” he said at the inauguration of this project.
The event also served to allay fears about the leadership crisis within the SP. To back up that message, Mulayam even revoked the suspension of his cousin Ram Gopal Yadav, three days before the inauguration. As Professor Lav Kush Misra, dean of Management College, Agra University, says, “All [of Mulayam’s] family members were present. This gives a positive message to the Yadav votebank. It also makes clear that Akhilesh Yadav, with his development agenda, will be the face of the SP in the coming assembly election.”
However, it was not an entirely smooth ride. Initially, the expressway was to be constructed under the public-private partnership model, but no companies showed interest in it. After the parliamentary elections in 2014, the Uttar Pradesh Expressways Industrial Development Authority (UPEIDA) was given the task, with a senior IAS officer, Navneet Sehgal, as CEO. The expressway was divided into five sectors-Agra to Firozabad, Firozabad to Etawah, Etawah to Kannauj, Kannauj to Unnao and Unnao to Lucknow. Four different companies were then engaged to construct these sectors. The attempt bore fruit, according to a senior official of the UPEIDA. “Involving different companies bred competition, which was good for us,” he says.
Another hurdle was land acquisition. Says Sehgal, “Instead of acquiring land, we decided to purchase it. To make the deal more [appealing], owners were offered four times the circle rates in rural areas and double in urban areas.” Hari Ram, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Lucknow region), agrees: “During the land acquisition process, no major protests from the farmers were reported. It indicates that the process was farmer-friendly.” In cases where purchase was not possible, the acquisition process laid down in the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, was followed. To ensure that financial red tape did not delay the project, UPEIDA transferred the land budgets to the district magistrates of the relevant districts. This bore fruit: UPEIDA completed a total of 28,235 registries between June 2014 and January 2015, having purchased more than 3,200 hectares of land. The project also broke new ground: it is the first in the country that can serve as an emergency air strip. This was on full display on November 21, when six Indian Air Force fighter jets landed on the expressway.
However, not everyone is happy. Says Bahujan Samaj Party national president Mayawati: “Instead of focusing on administration, the chief minister is in hurry to inaugurate incomplete projects.” The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) questioned the route. “It is not a coincidence that the Agra-Lucknow expressway passes through the stronghold of the Mulayam Singh Yadav family,” says state BJP spokesperson Dr Chandramohan. However, Sehgal says the “Agra-Lucknow expressway passes through the shortest distance between Agra and Lucknow”.
That said, Nishant will have to wait a bit longer. The expressway will be opened to the public only in late December, after a security audit by state and central agencies.