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Potholes on the road ahead

Highway drive with overloaded trucks running along the paths of the Golden Quadrilateral, a deadline may have to be set for repairing the grid roads, reports Meher M. Ali. See graphics

india Updated: Feb 11, 2010 02:03 IST
Meher M. Ali

The Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) is the first phase of the National Highways Development Project (NHDP).

It involves upgrading identified highways that connect the four metros — Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai — in the shape of a diamond.

The GQ project started in 2001 under the National Democratic Alliance government. December 2005 was the first deadline by which the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) was to finish construction. It missed the deadline, fixed a new one (December 2006) and missed that as well.

By December 2009, the NHAI reported on its website that 97 km of the 5,846-km-long GQ was unfinished.

When Hindustan Times contacted the NHAI, the official response on the GQ’s completion date was vague. “It’ll take one and a half years to two years,” said Brahm Dutt, secretary, department of road transport and highways. “There is no official deadline. It is on a contract-wise basis,” said A.V. Sinha, former member of the NHAI responsible for the GQ project from 2003 to 2008. He is now additional director general in the ministry of shipping, road transport and highways.

If we go by the road ministry’s estimates, the GQ will not be completed before 2012 — 97 km of highway will take two years to complete. Here’s why:

Of the 97 km still to be constructed, 55 km is on the Sunakhala-Ganjam stretch in Orissa. PCL-Sticco, a joint venture company, was initially awarded this contract. (PCL is a Canada-based company while Sticco is based in Saudi Arabia.) Their contract was terminated because they failed to complete their work on time. It was re-awarded to another company in October 2009.

While the original contractors were given 30 months to finish their work, the new contractors “will take at least 18 months to complete,” Sinha said. Contracts of six other companies were similarly re-awarded. This has pushed back the deadline.

The slow acquisition of land further delayed the project. “Till 2005 land was not given for some projects,” said Sinha. He also pointed a finger at Naxals, who stalled work by kidnapping workers in the “initial stages of the project” in 2003 in Sasaram during the construction of the Delhi-Kolkata corridor.

Another reason, and one most discussed by the media, is the difference in attitude of the NDA and the United Progressive Alliance governments towards the GQ. The NDA government, according to a source speaking on condition of anonymity, gave discretionary powers to the NHAI, which fast-tracked the process of awarding contracts and getting construction under way. Under the UPA “there is more monitoring (of the NHAI), more paperwork and lack of flexibility,” the source said.

Keeping the reasons for the delay aside, there is a bigger problem with the GQ — that of its lifespan. The 5,749 km of highways constructed face a daily barrage of overloaded trucks. “50 per cent [of] trucks are overloaded by 100 per cent,” said Chittaranjan Das, vice-president of the All India Confederation of Goods Vehicles Owners’ Association.

The Motor Vehicles Act determines the weight of a vehicle with reference to the axel. An axel is a rod on which the wheels of a vehicle are fixed. A conventional truck has two axels — one in front and the other at the back. The front axel with two tyres is permitted to carry six tonnes, while the rear axel (with four tyres) is permitted to carry 10.2 tonnes of weight. This means a truck is permitted to carry 16.2 tonnes.

But if the truck carries double the load, the damage to the road will not be double but four times, according to Das. So, the weight that hits the road is not 32 tonnes (double of 16 tonnes) but 64 tonnes (four times 16).

“Those [roads] constructed in 2005-06 may not last till their design life, which is 15 years … because of overloading. They will have to be rehabilitated before that,” said Sinha.

Policymakers who hastily propose that concrete cement roads will fix the problem should reconsider their views. Even though a concrete road has a longer lifespan (30 years) as compared to a bitumen road (15-year lifespan), concrete is more difficult to renovate.

Holes in a bitumen road can be easily filled. When it comes to a cement road, the whole stretch has to be redone, which is more costly and time-consuming.

With the NHAI already running behind schedule, and spending two years on a 97-km stretch, it remains to be seen how much of the GQ will be functional once construction is finished.

Meanwhile, overloaded trucks run the length and breadth of the completed parts. Once the 97-km stretch has been completed, perhaps another deadline will be set — this one for renovating the Golden Quadrilateral.