Bumpy ride for national highways

Poor quality of construction, overloaded vehicles, lack of oversight coming in the way of building a strong expansion

Myithili Hazarika February 23, 2019 01:45:54 IST
Bumpy ride for national highways

Mohammad Naushad was cruising along nicely as he entered the home stretch of his 1,301-km journey from Mumbai to Kannauj. The Agra-Lucknow Expressway lay vacant early morning. Suddenly, there was a jolt and Naushad and SUV were plunged into a 20-feet deep sinkhole.

Naushad and his three friends were lucky to escape unhurt and crawl out of the hole but the broken road left a trail of questions about the longevity of Indian highways. The 302-km Agra-Lucknow expressway cost Rs 15,000 crore and was built in record 23 months when it opened to commuters on December, 23, 2016.

Four months after the crash, a four-foot-wide hole opened up on a Gurugram flyover on the Delhi-Jaipur national highway. Similarly, the Delhi-Meerut expressway developed cracks barely two months after inauguration.

India is betting big on roads and spent an average Rs 50,000 crore in each of the last three fiscals on highways to expand the world’s second largest network. Around 60% of goods are transported through roads that have come to be India’s lifeline. Every day 27km is being added to the highway network, stand-in finance minister Piyush Goyal said when he presented the interim budget on February 1.

But, has the quality managed to keep pace? How are the national highways that connect state capitals and the farthest corners of the country withstanding the grind of a nation on the move?

There seems to be an agreement that quality of work could be better. Contractors construct bad roads to rake in money for repair work from the government, is the first response. Ask officials and they blame the monsoon and the heat.

“A highway made under official stipulations and taking into account specific environmental conditions will last five years,” says MN Nagabhushana, senior principal scientist at the Delhi’s Central Road Research Institute.

Degradation due to environment is very slow. Human error, not heat, is one of the biggest flaws, he says. A highway needs repairs and that too occasionally in its third or sometimes the fifth year. “Heat can cause permanent deformation, not frequent cracking.”

“In India, a road is built depending on the money available rather than its engineering,” says another Delhi-based road expert, who doesn’t want to be identified.

Bumpy ride for national highways

Representational image. Reuters

Quantity over quality?

In October 2017, the government decided to add 83,677km to the country’s 110, 000km highway network at a cost of Rs 6.92 lakh crore over five years.

Around 34,800km is to be built under the Bharatmala Parijoyana, which aims to optimise passenger and freight traffic through a highway network, at a cost of Rs 5.35 lakh crore. The remaining 48,887km will be constructed by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and road transport and highways ministry. It also means 45km of roads need to come up every day 2019-20, up from a 22.5km in 2016-17, to meet the target.

In India, tenders are handed out to the lowest bidder, called L 1, but there are no provisions to check the quality of work, says Delhi-based right to information activist Rahul Sharma, who heads the Road Anti-Corruption Organisation.

For instance, a stretch of highway estimated to be built at Rs 100 crore is handed to a contractor for Rs 40 lakh, the builder will try to make a profit by using low-quality raw material. “NHAI biddings are done under the hybrid annuity model in which the government releases 40% of the project cost. Monitoring of work by central agencies is also negligible,” he says.

Contractors complain that the tendering process has problems -- complex norms and lack of monitoring to name a few.
Though only qualified developers are awarded contracts but quality of work suffers when the contractor, already the lowest bidder, wants to bring down the production costs, says Mayank Garg, manager of Delhi-based Som Projects Private Limited.

“Engineers do not compromise on quality of raw materials nowadays. But there are several norms that are difficult for contractors to fulfil such as making specific arrangements for labourers within a specific budget. So an accepted amount of money is bribed to government officials to bypass these rules,” he says.

Nagabhushana agrees. Bitumen, he says, is costly and contractors tend to use it sparingly. “Not using enough bitumen or laying it in a particular temperature can result in evaporation of necessary volatile oils. This then results in early cracking of the top layer.”

Lack of oversight is another issue. No government official is available to oversee work after dark and developers compromise on road mixes, says Garg.

Creaking under load

Overloaded vehicles are a common sight and the biggest threat to roads. An expanding highway network and cheaper freight rates have made trucks the lifeline of Indian economy. Overloading means fewer runs and a lower fuel bill, but the cost is in terms of damage to roads and pollution.

“Fatigue cracking” due to overloading is one of the main reasons for highways falling apart. “Overloading is rampant in the transport industry. Trucks exceed more than 35% of their load capacity. In fact, an extra charge is taken from customers to be paid to highway officials and police,” Garg says. Rules allow 20-25% extra load.

Harpreet Singh, president of Mohali-based NGO Avoid Accident, says roads designed to withstand light to moderate traffic can crack under the weight of overloaded trucks and earth-moving equipment. “Enforcement agencies are apathetic to it,” he says.

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