Is it possible to permanently solve the hassle of bad roads in India?

Exploring the Possibilities

Whenever we come across a bad or a broken road, the first thing that comes to mind is calling the municipal authorities and filing a complaint. But this option rarely works. In most cases, your complaint is registered but no action is taken. What other options do you have as a citizen? Is there any other way you can ensure that your voice is heard and your problem is solved at the earliest?

You are not alone facing this problem, though. Nearly 30% of Indians who live in cities have to face the problem of bad roads on a daily basis. Lets say that after repeated complaining to the local authorities, the roads are redone, but once the monsoon arrives, the roads are again filled with potholes and slush. Till when do we need to suffer this? Is there a solution in sight? What can the government do and what can you do to solve this problem?

The History of Roads in India

Let’s go back a little and get a glimpse of where we started from. Ancient history of India reveals that long long ago; Indians knew the science of road construction. The excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa have established that even 3500 years BC, there was a well designed network of roads, and streets were paved at that time.

During the Aryan period, there were roads that were made of stones and is still in existence. The roads were very greatly improved in India during the Mughal period. Chahar Gulshan, which was written in eighteenth century, gives an information regarding 24 important roads which formed the network of roads in India during the Mughal period. The road system in those days was considered as one of the best road systems in the world.

After World War I, motor transport came to the fore-front which created revolution in India’s transportation system. Under the continued effect of high speed motor transport, the existing roads soon got deteriorated. The local bodies, with their limited financial and meagre technical resources, could not deal with the situation properly and with the increased motor traffic, the condition of roads went from bad to worse.

In 1934, a conference of the chief engineers of central and state government was convened by the central government at Nagpur. It is a landmark in the history of road development in India since it was the first attempt to prepare road development programme in a planned manner. That conference finalized a twenty year road development plan (1943–1963) popularly known as the Nagpur Plan.

According to that plan, all roads were classified into four broad categories namely National Highways, State Highways, District Roads and Village Roads. It was also recommended that the central government should assume complete financial liability for construction and maintenance of roads classified as National Highways and the construction of roads of national importance was made the responsibility of the central government.

After independence, the government. of India started taking much interest towards the development of roads in the country. The Nagpur plan targets were mostly achieved by 1960 through the first and second five year plans (1951–56 and 1956–61).

What’s the present situation in India today?

As of today, India has the 2nd largest road network across the world at 4.7 million km. This road network transports more than 60 per cent of all goods in the country. Road transportation has become central for quick connectivity between cities, towns and villages in the country.

The Indian roads carry almost 90 per cent of the country’s passenger traffic and around 65 per cent of its freight. In India sales of automobiles and movement of freight by roads is growing at a rapid rate. Also the government of India has set earmarked nearly $200 million for infrastructure during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012–17) to develop the country’s roads.

But the problem is that —

Most highways in India are narrow and congested with poor surface quality. In 2000, about 40 percent of India’s 825,000 villages lacked all-weather roads. The existing network of some 2.7 million km of rural roads suffered from years of neglect, under-funding, and a lack of maintenance. As a result, it loomed as a major constraint to reducing poverty and improving quality of life in rural areas.
What are the factors we need to keep in mind before we go ahead?

Since we know that roads indirectly contribute to the economic growth of the country it is extremely important that the roads are well laid out and strong. India is home to several bad roads be it the metropolitan cities or the villages. Bad road conditions are nothing new to India and the problem is being addressed since the last 30 years, still there is no practical solution to it.

India has a total of about 4 million kilometers of roads out of which 960,000 kilometers are surfaced roads and about 1 million kilometers of roads in India are the poorly constructed ones. India is also home to Fifty-three National highways which carry about 40 percent of the total road traffic. Although the figures look pretty impressive but the underlying fact is that 25 percent of villages in India still have poor road links.

Who is responsible for it?

It is easy to blame the government for everything in India. There a number of factors at play that add up to creating a situation where the road are always in a bad shape. Each citizen is also responsible for not raising their voice and informing the right government authorities for action to be taken.

To be clear, in India the responsibilities for road building and maintenance lies with the Central and state government. The administration of the national highway system is vested with the Ministry of State for Surface Transport in India and other state roads are preserved by the state public works departments. As far as the minor roads in the country are concerned they are up kept by the various districts, municipalities, and villages.

What is the exact problem that needs to be solved?

Just look around and you can find potholes on roads everywhere in rural and urban India especially during and after monsoons. Every year crores and crores of rupees are spent by the highway agencies in extensive pothole patch repairs. This ritual is repeated year after year despite the fact that due to potholes several lakhs of people are involved in accidents causing serious injuries and in many cases fatalities.

India is losing thousands of crores every year in road user costs in terms of loss of wage hours due to increased travel time; excessive usage of fuel (due to “slow and stop” movement); and increased vehicle wear and tear.
Is the public to blame for this?

The Indian public has been brainwashed in believing potholes are a natural phenomenon during rains (as if water in the Indian monsoon has some chemical to dissolve the bituminous road!). Here in India the roads have to bear the brunt of only three months of monsoon rain every year. If roads last for three years in India they would last only nine months in many other countries where it rains almost throughout the year.

Then what is the cause of bad roads that is common all across India?

Is it the lack of quality materials that is causing the problem?

Whereas lack of quality control is a contributing factor, there is a major fundamental, engineering problem which the Indian public does not know. Of the ten types of bituminous paving mixes specified and used in India, seven are open graded (water-trapping) problematic mixes.

Examples: Bituminous Macadam (BM) Gradings 1 and 2;

Semi Dense Bituminous Concrete (SDBC) Gradings 1 and 2;

Dense Bituminous Macadam (DBM) Grading 1;

Premix Carpet (PMC); and Mixed Seal Surfacing (MSS).

The Built-Up Spray Grout (BUSG) is no different.

The remaining three are dense graded (and therefore desirable) mixes.

Examples are: Dense Bituminous Macadam (DBM) Grading 2;

Bituminous Concrete (BC) Grading 1;

and Bituminous Concrete (BC) Grading 2.

Is Water the Culprit causing the trouble?

The water-trapping mixes also happen to be initially cheaper than the dense graded mixes and therefore are used commonly. (It does not matter if they generally last for 1–2 years compared to dense graded mixes which may last for 7–8 years. In other words, they are very expensive based on life cycle costs.) Water is enemy number one of bitumen. That is why, water-trapping mixes fail prematurely especially during monsoons. This is simple common sense and not rocket science. All across India, the deadly combination of BM and SDBC is being used brazenly.

What are the other countries doing right and can India learn from it?

When we look at most developed countries in the world, they generally use three dense graded bituminous mixes in their specifications: one each for base course, binder course and wearing course. And they have good durable roads despite heavy rainfall sometimes throughout the year.

It is simply amazing as to why Indian highway engineers need additional seven water-trapping, problematic bituminous mixes for road construction/resurfacing?

Most countries in Europe where some of the best road infrastructure is present, have focused on spending more on maintenance compared to building new projects. The fact is that what takes $1 to repair currently will increase 5 to 10 fold in the future. It is always wise to ensure that nearly 70% of the budget is allocated to repair and upkeep of roads, while 30% is spent for new projects.

Will we be able to replicate the best practices from other countries, where all-weather roads that are able to sustain for years in spite of it raining throughout the year in some places. Can we replicate the same technology here in India? Will India go on to invest less to build new roads and more on the maintenance?

What are some practical solutions/prototypes that can change the game?

These are just some of the sustainable ideas that have a huge potential in changing the way our roads are constructed and ensure that they remain weather proof.

Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Company (JUSCO), a Tata Enterprise, has undertaken an initiative to use plastic waste for road construction in Jamshedpur. The initiative, which started out as a pilot project, is now being replicated across the city and so far 48 to 50 kilometers of roads in the city have been constructed using plastic waste.
Plastic bottles, wrappers are collected from across the city and brought to 10 collection centres. The waste is then broken down by shredding it to 2 mm to 4 mm before processing it further. Plastic helps bind the road construction mix better resulting in longer lives for roads and also helps in cutting down the overall maintenance cost of a road.

Vegecol is a plant-based binder used in surfacing techniques. Designed as a substitute for bitumen, translucent, colorable Vegecol makes it possible to manufacture asphalt concrete at temperatures that are 40°C lower than conventional binders. Vegecol’s plant-based binder is composed of entirely renewable, natural agricultural products not used in human or animal food production.

Solar Roadways Incorporated is a startup company based in Sandpoint, Idaho, that is developing solar powered road panels to form a smart highway. Their technology combines a transparent driving surface with underlying solar cells, electronics and sensors to act as a solar array with programmable capability. Solar Roadways Inc is working to develop and commercially produce road panels which are made from recycled materials and incorporate photovoltaic cells.

So what does that future hold for Indian roads?

We all know the pressure that is being exerted on Indian cities. Nearly 30 per cent of India’s one billion population lives in cities. This number is nearly equal to the total population of the US. The projections indicate that the urban population will be close to 600 million by 2031 and many metro cities will emerge by then.

One thing that is definitely required is the increased investment in the urban infrastructure. These investments will define livability of the cities. At present, 70 to 75 per cent of modes of commuting in most of the Indian cities comprise of walking, cycling and public transport despite the skyrocketing numbers of motorised two wheelers and cars in the last two decades.

One option is improving maintenance of the roads by giving a private organization responsibility for it.

Take for example for Hyderabad, where there are consultations going on to handover the maintenance of roads to a private company for maintenance and restoration with every road having a Geo Tag and a unique number. GHMC, however, will still own the roads. Hyderabad has 9,099 km of roads of which 4,173 km are bitumen (BT) roads. Maintaining these roads cost the GHMC Rs 400 crore yearly.

Is Smart Cities the solution that will effectively eliminate this problem?

In the long run, the best solution could be the creation of Smart Cities where citizen feedback makes it possible for a more open governance using open data and public participation. Cities around the world are feeling the pressure of the uneven development that is happening. It is time that cities have understood the role of a citizen in shaping the future of the city.

The time has come to understand what systems should be built, using what technology and create sustainable urban environments keeping the citizen’s overall experience as the main objective. An interesting app that is making waves in India is the Smart City Vadodara app. This easy to use GPS- based application allows its citizens to raise issues by posting a message or sharing a photograph related to mismanagement of waste, dysfunctional city lights, an open drain and encroachment on roads.

The Government of India identifies six characteristics of a Smart City:

1. Smart governance

2. Smart mobility

3. Smart people

4. Smart economy

5. Smart environment

6. Smart living.

Thus the Smart City concept takes the agenda of privatisation beyond the takeover of public utilities such as road infrastructure, water supply or sanitation, and inaugurates the formal privatisation of governance itself.
What about the possibility of Open Data empowering citizens to ask the right questions and improve government decision-making?

With Open Data becoming popular, it promises to be a great opportunity for citizens to monitor the works done by the government and ensure accountability. But how long will it take for the citizen to be ready to use Open Data? And by when will its impact be actually visible on the ground?

Is Citizen — Government collaboration the best way forward or is privatization of roads the most efficient way to ensure its maintenance? Or will new and affordable technology come in and remove the need of this altogether? The vision is to ensure that every village in India will have all-weather roads which will only need basic maintenance once in 5 years.

In the near future, privatization of roads seems the best option to ensure that roads are maintained in the best manner possible.

But there is still a lot of scope for innovation and that can only happen when the government is involved in consultations with the citizens. A conversation between the citizens and the government using Open Data is a good start that will ensure that the best ideas come out and are given the opportunity to be tested and executed for the benefit of the citizens.