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Why funds and technology can't make our roads hold

columns Updated: Mar 18, 2013 00:19 IST
Shivani Singh

There is nothing more mystifying than the great Indian road trick. It is amazing how quickly roads are smoothened in the run-up to an election, and how fast the blacktop vanishes with one downpour or two, hurtling trucks passing over.

Delhi's roads were last mended for the civic polls exactly a year ago but they already resemble Martian landscapes. Craters - small and large - are most visible on the internal roads, which constitute 29,000 kilometers of the city's 35,000km road network.

With assembly elections due later this year, there is hope that the more visible stretches will be repaired soon. Bijli, sadak, paani, are, after all, key poll issues in every election. But there is no reason these roads should have disintegrated so fast because all the dense carpeting projects come with a five-year warranty. Between PWD and the three civic agencies, Delhi spends more than Rs 3,000 crore (one-fifth of the total budget) on building and repairing roads.

Granted, our roads suffer much more than standard roads are supposed to endure. If Delhi has the most extensive road network in India - 21% of Delhi's geographical area is just motorways - it also has the highest vehicular population. Ten per cent of country's vehicles are registered in Delhi. Then, there are 2,00,000 heavy vehicles, mostly overloaded trucks, which pass through the city in the absence of a bypass.

Against such odds, substandard construction stands little chance. According to a study by IIT-Roorkee two years ago, most roads built by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) had potholes and cracks that ran three layers deep. Poor maintenance had hastened deterioration. The study found that Delhi roads were not thick enough and flooding due to lack of drainage had aggravated the situation.

If there is no effective means to ensure quality during the construction process, there is little to hold the contractor accountable if the road gives in prematurely. Before the trifurcation of MCD last year, the civic agency used to blacklist at least 15 contractors every year. But the three corporations together have punished only eight contractors since last April.

The maximum penalty for those blacklisted includes forfeiture of the contractor's deposit amount and, in extreme cases, expelling the company from the civic agency or PWD panel. But as officials admit, nothing stops a blacklisted construction company to bid under a new name.

It is not that the government is short of ideas. Its options include concrete roads in areas that are prone to waterlogging or plastic roads that double the durability and last up to six years and cost no more than bitumen roads. In 2004, a pilot project for plastic roads took off in north Delhi. The Rajpur road experiment turned out to be successful and the stretch lasted many years.

But while Tamil Nadu has made a policy shift in favour of plastic roads - chief minister J Jayalaithaa has fixed a target of 1,000-km road in the state and is offering high subsidy to municipalities that build them - the Capital's nine-year-long wait continues.

Given that we have both funds and technology, the only plausible reason for not having smooth, durable roads is that the scenario does not suit political or business interests. If roads don't crumble, politicians lose their election plank and contractors can't make a killing by going through cycles of patchwork in the name of repairing.

Last year, irate residents of Russia's Volgograd created a Walk of Shame, painting a star around every pothole and dedicating each to a specific official in the local administration. Maybe it's time citizens of Delhi found their own way to drive home that they deserve better.