Nitin Gadkari
Nitin GadkariReuters

It is surprising how at a time when the Indian private sector – which is often considered more efficient in the implementation of plans and mobilisation of resources for projects – appears financially stressed, the government ministry claims to have enough cash to build the crucial infrastructure in the country. 

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From announcing ambitious projects like doubling the national highway network to 180,000 km from 96,000 km, to the 4,000 km Delhi-Bangkok road route, to the "assurance" that the pollution level in and around Delhi-NCR would be reduced by half in two years (by building two major ring roads that will allow trucks to bypass the city altogether), Nitin Gadkari has everyone talking more about his once-boring Ministry of Road Transport and Highways than other fancy portfolios, say the ministries of finance, external affairs of home.

Set to complete three years in office in May this year, Gadkari, who also holds the shipping portfolio, is described by both his partymen and even critics as "the best-performing minister in the Narendra Modi government".

In an interview with on Saturday (Feb 11), Gadkari said funding is not a problem for as many as 101 projects that are ready to take off. He said contracts worth Rs five lakh crore (roughly $73 billion) have been signed in the infrastructure, road and port sectors. 

"It is a very remarkable contribution from our investors...we do not have any problem, we are receiving public, private investment, we are receiving a good response for the Public-Private Partnership, Build-Operate-Transfer and hybrid annuity (models)," Gadkari said.

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley provided for raising Rs 70,000 crore infrastructure bonds in the Budget. Gadkari added the ministry will also monetise the annual toll income of Rs 10,000 crore. He shared a similar optimism for the port sector, saying the ministry will raise money from easy availability of low-cost overseas loans. 

After his visit to Davos in January, Gadkari said he saw a good response from investors for several infrastructure projects, including water sports and skiing. Last year, he promised that by 2019, his ministry alone will add about 2 per cent to India's GDP. 

Those who know Gadkari say his pet project is inland waterways. And not without reasons. In India, hardly 3.5 per cent of goods and traffic move through water, while in China, it is 47 per cent, in South Korea and Japan about 44 per cent and in most European countries, around 40 per cent, according to a Fortune report. 

So when Gadkari spearheaded the National Waterways Bill of 2015, he declared 111 inland waterways – up from five since 1947 – as national waterways. "By encouraging waterways, we can bring down the cost of transport by 15 per cent to 20 per cent, making us more competitive," Gadkari said. 

Apart from road and inland waterways project, the Bharatmala project aims at building National Highways to connect coastal/border areas, religious places, tourist places and improve connectivity to all district headquarters to National Highways. Similarly, Setu Bharatam programme is aimed at making the road travel safer by constructing railway overbridges or underpasses at all 208 level-crossings in the country. The aim is to make national highways free of railway-level crossings by 2019. 

Not that whatever he has said so far has worked out to perfection. For example, Gadkari's promise that by December 2016, the strategic Chabahar port in Iran will be operational is nowhere close to reality. Similarly, the current pace of road construction at 17 kilometre a day is just above half of his grand announcement of 30 kilometre a day by 2016. 

Not surprisingly thus, economist Meghnad Desai told Fortune that as Gadkari wants to be seen as the go-to man in the government after Modi. "He realises that with a workaholic prime minister, if he has to stand out, he needs to almost outperform Modi himself. But that seems unlikely, so he is bent on outperforming every other minister," he said.