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The Mumbai Project: Mumbai’s slow road journey

The six-lane roadway from Santacruz to Chembur, will dramatically cut travel time from an appalling two hours now to just 17 minutes. Rajendra Aklekar finds out more about this dream project.Talk to us...Check out the special on The Mumbai Project

india Updated: Dec 15, 2007 17:27 IST
Rajendra Aklekar
Rajendra Aklekar
Hindustan Times

"We built nearly 300 km of expressways in Bangkok in 10 years. It’s easy to build roads here as only two agencies are involved. The government cooperates completely, so land acquisition is never a problem. Road projects usually meet deadlines." - Prapat Chongsanguan, Governor of Thailand’s Mass Rapid Transit Authority and former chief of Bangkok Expressways Authority


Check out the special on The Mumbai Project


Several men tug on the rope of a pulley to send a concrete slab attached to the other side soaring into the air. The slab stops with a jerk when it reaches a platform resting on two massive pillars nearly 30 metres — or six storeys high. A few men waiting on the platform yank the slab out and send the rope back down again to pick up another slab.

The pulley might be a simple machine, but the men operating it are building a section of what will become what the National Geographic called an Asian engineering marvel: Mumbai’s highest roadway, and the first one to have two tiers.

The 6-lane roadway, to start at Santacruz in the west and end at Chembur in the east, is a landmark in other ways too. It will provide a vital link from the residential western suburbs to the burgeoning retail, finance, infotech and entertainment hubs in the east. It will dramatically cut travel time between the endpoints from an appalling two hours now to just 20 minutes.

“This is a dream project that promises to shrink Mumbai,” said Milind Mhaiskar, joint commissioner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA), which is co-ordinating this project. “Mumbai has never attempted anything on this scale before. In the next three years, Mumbai will be a different and better place to live in,” he said, raising his voice in order to be heard over the din of a train that clatters past on tracks over which the two-tier road will eventually rise.

This roadway, which will also connect the Western and Eastern Express Highways, is the lynchpin of Mumbai’s most ambitious road makeover — financially, logistically and technically. In all, nearly 70 km of new roads will be built in the makeover.

The other key project in this Rs 6,288 crore road makeover is one to widen the road between Jogeshwari in the west and Vikhroli in the east from two lanes to six lanes. Other major undertakings include widening the two highways and the two key north-south arteries, S.V. Road in the west and L.B.S. Marg in the east. (See, ‘Status check’ for a list of key projects in this road makeover)

But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The Santacruz-Chembur road, for instance, was to be completed by the end of 2005, two years after work began, but Mhaiskar now says it will be ready only by the end of 2009 — a colossal delay of four years. The Jogeshwari-Vikhroli road widening project was to be completed by the end of 2007, three years after work began, but the new deadline is end-2008, a delay of two years.

“It is a huge planning challenge,” admitted Mhaiskar. “This roadway is being built in the middle of bustling colonies, where thousands of people have lived for generations. We have to move hundreds of houses, shops, religious places and government offices to make way for the road, and it takes time to convince people to move.” (See, ‘The human factor’)

In March 2006 the World Bank also temporarily suspended financial assistance to the Santacruz-Chembur road, following concern over resettlement and rehabilitation of project-affected people, who complained to the Bank about irregularities. After settling various legal disputes, the planning authority finally got the project back on track this July, and Mhaiskar said the only thing that remained was the engineering and construction work.

But one wonders why policymakers did not anticipate some of the problems. After all, resettlement and rehabilitation are not challenges unique to Mumbai. Other crowded cities in Asia have also dealt with similar obstacles, and met deadlines.

Take Bangkok. Notorious for traffic snarls, the city has built 300 km of expressways over the past 10 years. The resettlement process there is not very different from ours — the authorities identify those who will be displaced by the project and offer them compensation.

“It is easy to build roads in the Thai capital as only two agencies are involved,” Prapat Chongsanguan, governor of Thailand’s Mass Rapid Transit Authority and former chief of the Bangkok Expressways Authority, told HT in his Bangkok office, “Land acquisition is easy because the government provides complete assistance.”

The resettlement issue might have been solved, but experts see more fundamental flaws in the road makeover. For one, some of them believe it is short-sighted, and does not account for the massive growth in traffic expected over the next few years. The city already has 15 lakh vehicles, and 500 new ones are being registered every day. Mhaiskar said that his planning body had accounted for this growth, but experts remain sceptical. (See ‘Is this enough?’ for problems with Mumbai’s approach to laying, repairing and maintaining roads). Experts also feel that the day-to-day supervision by technical people at various sites should be much more stringent than they usually are for Mumbai’s road works, no matter who is implementing the project.

“Besides day-to-day supervision, an independent agency should also be appointed to conduct random checks and who is not afraid to call a spade a spade,” said Sudhir Badami, a civil engineer and former member of a road monitoring committee appointed by the high court in 2006. A planning official said that the construction of the Santacruz-Chembur roadway would by supervised by employees of the Louis Berger Group, the US-headquartered firm that are engineering consultants to the project.

Experts hope that whatever roads do get built or augmented as part of the makeover will be of good quality and not go the way of the Andheri-Kurla Road (see ‘Wrong turn’). If nothing else, the road makeover will have provided employment to hundreds of workers: the Santacruz-Chembur roadway alone has 1,500 people working on it.

In any case, it is too late to backtrack from a project that has finally taken off after several setbacks. As if to drive the point home, at the Kurla construction site, yet another tug on the pulley sends another slab upwards, and Mumbai’s first elevated, two-tier roadway inexorably inches forward.

What not to do: the Andheri-Kurla Road

By Naresh Kamath

Sushant Rai, 35, a salesman at a multinational firm, dreads the three days every week when he has to travel from his Nariman Point office to the Leela Business Park in Marol to meet clients. That’s because he has to brave the dug-up, traffic-choked, poorly lit Andheri-Kurla Road — one of the city’s busiest corridors, and one that connects the eastern suburbs to the international airport. A trip through this road takes thrice the time it should if the road were in reasonable shape. “It is a nightmare travelling on this road,” said Rai.

Just two years ago, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority widened this road from four to eight lanes, concretised and laid it with paver-blocks — those squiggle-shaped, brick-size slabs. The planning authority is yet to hand over the road for maintenance to the municipal corporation because it is still completing the work.

But now cracks have appeared in the concrete around the road’s manholes, those stretches laid with paver-blocks have sunk, large sections are uneven and the rest dug up. To make matters worse for drivers unfamiliar with the area, the streetlights don’t work along some stretches.

Traffic jams are endemic; vehicles routinely break down. Yet the authorities deny there is a problem. “Only the portions next to the manholes are damaged,” said Dilip Kawatkar, joint commissioner of the planning authority. “We could not do any repairs due to rain, but now work is going on in full speed and will be done by March 2009.” That, however, begs the question why a road needs such extensive repairs so soon after it has been built.

Is this enough?

By Rajendra Aklekar

Problem 1: Supervision needs to be improved
At every step of the construction, supervision by technical people is required — not only at the road site but also at the asphalt and concrete plants. This is normally quite lax.You also need an independent agency to conduct random checks on whether the equipment is adequate. For example, the bitumen for the road surface must be rolled out at a particular temperature, so the agency should check whether the site has both a roller and a thermometer.

Problem 2: No traffic management plans in place

Once work on a road or flyover begins, traffic in the area becomes chaotic. The authorities need to manage the traffic better, and put up clear signboards for diversions before launching a project.

Problem 3: Too many agencies dig up roads
Too many agencies are digging up our roads and filling them back in. Roads get built by many authorities, like the municipal corporation, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Develop-ment Authority, the Mumbai Port Trust, the central government and the Navy. A slew of utilities also dig up roads to lay cables and pipes. Roads are dug up through the year and there is sometimes duplication in work. We need one agency that co-ordinates road repair, building and widening.

Problem 4: Poor road maintenance

Our road maintenance is poor, but this is as important as building new ones. Small potholes should be repaired before the damage spreads, storm water drains running along the sides of roads must be kept clear to prevent water-logging.

Problem 5: Lack of detailed road records
The city does not maintain vital historical records of work done on the roads. We therefore often see good roads being repaired again, and bad roads being neglected. The record will also show how often a road has had to be repaired, which could mean the initial construction was poor. It will reveal such patterns.

The human factor

Mumtaz Sheikh, 42, wistfully surveys an open ground in Kurla. She used to live here in a one-room hut, along with 150 families, in the Rahul Nagar slum. The whole slum was cleared before the monsoon to make way for gigantic pillars that will support the new 14-lane roadway from Santacruz to Chembur. The government shifted the slum’s residents to a colony in Mankhurd, and each family got a 225-square-feet flat. “I’ve spent a lifetime here,” said Mumtaz, who had returned that day to collect some of her belongings that she had stored in a tailoring shop in the vicinity. “It is so difficult to start one’s life again in a completely strange locality.”

By the time the project is completed, MMRDA will have moved 3,500 structures to make way for this road, which is expected to fill a huge gap in the city’s network by becoming the first high-speed corridor connecting the western and eastern suburbs. “We have to move hundreds of houses, shops, religious places and government offices to make way for the road, and it takes time to convince people to move,” said Mhaiskar.

The buck stops here

Milind Mhaiskar, Joint commissioner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority

When will Mumbai’s citizens finally be able to travel on good roads — roads that are not dug up and are of good quality? Mumbai will get good quality roads in the next three years. Various projects in our makeover will be completed from end-2008 to end-2010. Many of your road projects are very delayed.

By the time they are completed will they serve the purpose? Have you taken future growth in traffic into consideration? Yes. We have studied this aspect. Our plans are based on studies on the city’s future needs conducted by the US-headquartered Wilbur Smith Associates and the Indian Civil Engineering Services, submitted in 2003.

How will you ensure that the new deadlines do not recede further into the future?
Issues like land acquisition and shifting telephone wires and gas pipes took some time. Also, some project-affected people along the planned Santcruz Chembur road complained to the World Bank that they were not satisfied with the rehabilitation plan. This led to some delays, which had a cascading effect. Since we have resolved all these issues, the deadline will not be shifted further.

Is your makeover based on holistic understanding of Mumbai’s road needs or are you just working in patches?
The authority does not do patchwork. It is a planning body, and we have a master plan for roads in Mumbai under the Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project. Work is being implemented in phases according to this master plan.

(With inputs from Naresh Kamath in Mumbai and Madhurima Nandy in Bangkok)

For more details: Check out the special on The Mumbai Project

First Published: Nov 26, 2007 02:45 IST

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