Backward-bending policy to take toll

January 5, 2010

The B K Chaturvedi committee has suggested ways for expeditious financing and implementation of the National Highways Development Project (NHDP). It has rectified problematic rules concerning the exit policy, bid security, security to lenders, request for qualifications (RfQ) and request for proposal (RfP). These belated measures will surely make highway projects more attractive for investors.

However, some other recommendations bear unmistakable signs of fear psychosis, perhaps caused by the reduced private investment in highways during 2008-09. The decline was largely due to two reasons: the detrimental and mid-course changes made in RfQ and RfP rules, and the economic downturn. But in a typical panic-driven response, the committee has confused symptoms with the causes. Thus, it has introduced some questionable changes in the model concession agreement (MCA) for tolled projects. Conversely, several crucial issues have been ignored.

To put arguments in perspective, recall the pre-August 2008 scenario: 9%-plus growth rate, upbeat credit and financial markets, and bullish investors scrambling for projects to invest in. During 2006-07, more than 60 highway projects attracted private investment. In fact, there was a shortage of well-structured projects on offer.

The extant rules regarding the viability gap funding (VGF) and termination of contract posed no threat to the attractiveness of highway projects. Yet, the committee has targeted these rules to implement investors’ wishlist. Under a BOT-toll contract, an investor is granted the right to charge toll from users.

There are two main justifications for this concession: investors provide upfront funding for projects, alleviating the taxpayers’ burden, and bear the construction, maintenance and commercial risks. VGF grant is provided to make a socially-desirable but unprofitable project attractive for an investor. The underlying objective is not, and should not be, to add to the upfront financing — that is for the private sector to do. Limited funds are available for VGF. The MCA rules allow VGF up to 40% of the project cost; 20% during construction phase and the rest during maintenance phase.

In contrast, the committee has offered the entire grant during construction phase itself, and has reduced
it to a mere cost-sharing device. Further, compared to what would have been possible under the earlier rules, now the grant requirement of fewer projects will be met with. So, at least in the short run, fewer grant-dependent projects will take off.

Besides, an investor can borrow 20% of project cost at concessional rates from the IIFCL, a public sector company. Indeed, excluding the profit margins, an investor can meet up to 70% of cost just using grants and other funds raised by public sector entities. Simply put, what was to be the investor’s responsibility has been passed on to the taxpayer, undermining the rationale of VGF as well as toll contracts. Moreover, an investor is reimbursed 90% of due debt if the contract gets terminated. So, the new rules are likely to create moral hazards during construction phase and later.

Under MCA rules, if actual traffic turns out to be less (greater) than predictions, the concession period is increased (reduced) proportionately. If traffic increases beyond the designed capacity, to avoid congestion, the concessionaire is required to widen the road at his cost. These rules imply that road users get satisfactory service, and the investor and the taxpayer share the unanticipated losses (gains) arising from traffic-risk. In contrast, under the new rules, if the government asks for capacity expansion on account of high traffic, it will have to compensate the investor. Moreover, the contract period cannot be reduced. So, the event of traffic exceeding the designed capacity has become lucrative for the investor. It would ensure them unexpectedly high profit.

Source: economictimes

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