Big roads, small roads and environmental concerns

It is reassuring to know that across India the jugaad solution to deal with potholes is to chuck stones and bricks into them and hope for the best!

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Ranjona Banerji

To drive on Indian roads is an experience like no other. The skill to negotiate people, potholes, various kinds of leftover as well as new debris, plus random obstructions, can beat any Olympic skill. Why don’t we win more international obstacle races?

Years of living in Mumbai had inured me, I thought, to seasonal potholes which no manmade technology can conquer. First among cities in India, with its massive municipal budget, Mumbai has not managed to find a surface that can deal with the onslaught of the monsoon. Despite the money, the planning and the effort, like most things in India, there is that gap between intent and implementation.

In our little village in Dehradun, the local system is very honest. You ask the supervisor how long the newly cemented road surface he’s working on will last and the answer often is: ‘Let’s see, at least a week”! Since the budgets don’t match big cities, innovative ideas like leaves and newspapers are added to the tar or cement to make the road dry faster. They look pretty for a week as you drive over them.

Recent landslides in the Himalayas have caused not just destruction of life but also of very expensive roads. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-prized Char Dham Highway dream has a projected cost of ₹12000 crore. Apart from the enormous environmental damage that the road has already inflicted on the fragile Himalayas of Uttarakhand, there is the intriguing issue that we plan enormous projects worth several million rupees but find ourselves unable to keep existing roads in working condition.

Mumbai’s Coastal Road – once again a potential environmental hazard – will cost about ₹9000 crore but the city of Mumbai finds its most-used roads are rendered unusable for half the year.

This is around the time that someone kindly explain to me how different departments are involved and how budgets are different and how massive infrastructure projects have goals other than usable road surfaces and so on. Yes, thank you. We all get that.

You see it at the lowest level when a less important road being repaired will often have untouched gaps every few metres. Clearly, this is where one department’s jurisdiction ended and someone else’s began, with a bit of no-person’s land in between. Plus, quite possibly, the contractor was not paid enough while all the loot was divided.

This is the same reason why construction debris is never removed so our pavements have giant mounds of rubble on them. These eventually get taken over by various flora and fauna and become separate ecosystems to adorn our footpaths. If we have pavements that is. It’s not just the PWD or the municipality or panchayat that does this. The electricity department is also well known for leaving chunks of concrete, bits of rebar and odd stones around all its newly erected electricity poles. No Indian urban landscape is complete without such beautification.

We just undertook a car journey through Uttarakhand through Himachal, Haryana to Chandigarh. Apart from bits of okay highway – whether state or national or fancy bypasses – the general condition of most roads was dangerous and pathetic. Massive trenches, unsurfaced areas in between tarred roads, rocks and debris. Bounce, bounce, crash you go. That ₹12000 crore on one road really hurts at these times.

We’ve travelled on that expensive dream project as well. The destroyed and denuded hillsides foretold the future that is so unsettling that no one wants to listen. The consequences are already being felt and will in the future because the loss of an estimated 28,000 trees is no small matter.

The story is similar for the ₹10,000 crore Delhi-Dehradun expressway. So far “only” 2500 century-old trees in the Sal forests of the Shivaliks will be sacrificed. These trees hold these hills together. But who cares when you can get to Delhi faster in your car?

How long the road surface will last is anyone’s guess. The question of diverting the same money to maintenance of current roads and to invest in mass public transport is only asked by anti-nationals and people who do not want progress. Instead, let us celebrate that awful word: jugaad, awful when it is an excuse for incompetence. Meanwhile, it is reassuring to know that across India the jugaad solution to deal with potholes is to chuck stones and bricks into them and hope for the best!

(Views are personal)

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