Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Roads to Nowhere??

The road to development in Kerala literally got blockaded in an "all-party meeting" yesterday when a call was made to contain the development of National Highways NH-47 and NH-17 to 30 meters instead of the already restricted 45 meters (the national standard is 60 meters). My friend Scorpiogenius has blogged optimistically about the prospects for road infrastructure development in Kerala, but it seems his worst nightmare has come true and it has truely grim ramifications for every citizen of Kerala, including you and me.

No Land?

A drive down the NH-47 from Cherthala to Trivandrum (the stretch currently up for 4-laning) will clearly reveal that for most of the length of the highway, there is plenty of barren land on both sides or one-side of the existing road. The old NH-47 parallels the current alignment at most places and this itself ensures plenty of empty space for widening. The only places where shops and houses come close to the road are at the small towns through which the NH-47 passes, like Haripad, Karunagapally or Kottiyam. Rehabilitation will be necessary in these zones but that does not add up to the massive numbers of evictions that some of the opponents of road widening claim.

Again, where the rules call for set-backs of at least 7.5 m from the existing road for new development, hundreds of shops and houses have been built openly flouting these norms. That's more a case of living on the edge and paying the price.

Finally, the NH-47 takes detours away from the three main urban areas that it crosses - Alappuzha, Kollam and Attingal - in the form of by-passes which ostensibly will pass through less densely inhabited areas.

Most shocking is the fact that none of the highways' opponents have furnished any authoritative figures for the numbers of genuine evictions nor for the cost of compensation & rehabilitation. Neither has the Government of Kerala other than in the case of those strategically important installations, bars and bar-hotels. The published figures show that about 500 hectares of land need to be acquired for the NH-47, but where are the figures about the ownership and usage of this land? For all we know 450 hectares could be "puramboke" or Government owned! An RTI seems in order.

Who needs 4-lanes anyway?!

We do, all of us, not just the elite or the petit bourgeois in their Mercs and Beamers. NH-47 has been due for 4-laning since 2004, when its Detailed Project Report (DPR) mentioned that the traffic density called for urgent 4-laning. It so happens that in the world of engineering and science, there are established norms for road width with respect to traffic density which is measured in Passenger Car Units (PCUs).

For example, internationally accepted norms call for 6-laning to be taken up once peak traffic exceeds about 5400 PCUs per hour. As per current traffic estimates, the peak traffic will hit about 5000 PCUs/hour at major intersections such as Kazhakkoottam and the figure will reach about 10,000 PCUs/hour by 2015. This means that the traffic volumes have far exceeded the norms for 4-laning and are very nearly at the threshold for 6-laning.

So what if we have a few meters less?

First, narrow roads = high traffic congestion. One doesn't need a MIT PhD to understand this equation. Just drive between Trivandrum and Ernakulam at any time between 9 AM and 10 PM and it becomes evident in the frustrating hours spent crawling along, honking your horn and raining expletives on more creative drivers. The average speed of travel is often less than 50 Kmph. At such low speeds, vehicles burn up a lot more fuel and emit a nasty cloud of assorted pollutants. Higher fuel costs mean that costs of transportation are significantly increased. More expensive bus tickets and cargo costs. The clogged up NH-47 could be costing the Kerala economy - all of us - hundreds or thousands of Crores each year. A bad deal all around.

Next, narrow roads spawn poor road safety. Contrary to what our CM has to say, the incidence of road accidents is directly linked to road width. Studies have shown a 40% to 60% decline in road accidents post the widening of a road stretch. It's convenient to blame accidents only on poor driving. Bad roads spawn a lot of injudicious driving, narrow carriageways prompt risky overtaking, for example. 4 or 6-lane roads allow for the segregation of different kinds of road users based on speed (slow lane Vs fast lane) and type (heavy Vs light Vs pedestrians).

Another simple improvement is the median which physically separates the two directions and can prevent 99% of head-on collisions and also prevents road users getting blinded by the headlights of oncoming vehicles.

One of the ludicrous suggestions at the "all-party meeting" was that "service roads were not needed". These are vital especially in urban and semi-urban areas, which basically account for most of NH-47. Local and light traffic can use the service roads without having to congest the main carriageway or frequently cutting across it. 4-lanes without service roads would be much less efficient than with them.

Is there an Expert in the room?

No, I don't mean me. I am not a civil engineer far less a highway specialist, although I have been focusing on infrastructure projects including roads for about eight years now and have been through many of the technical documents concerned (okay, call me an informed commentator). But neither are the members of the common or garden variety "all-party committee." And most definitely not nonagenarian, former Judges who still choose to make high-handed statements on highway development (and everything else under the Sun that they have no clue about). As always, I wonder who authorized these "cultural leaders" to speak on behalf of the General Public. Were they elected or do they have any expertise on the topic? NO!

I wonder if any highway engineers, from NATPAC or the Kerala Highway Institute, were invited to brief the all-party meeting on the benefits of good highways? I would guess not, and even if these "irrelevant" people were invited, they would have languished at the back of the audience as the politicos waxed eloquent about how many of their constituents are going to suffer.

On the contrary, this blog  and its author also  tries to talk to experts who actually have a pretty good idea of what they are talking about. Here is what a friend of mine who is a highway design and construction specialist with over a decade of experience has to say (paraphrased):

"Within 30 m, one can only think of 4-lanes without service lanes. This necessitates 24 m of Right of Way (RoW) but does not include such critical things as a utility corridor (necessary to prevent the road being dug up every week or so) or the gradient needed to correct dangerous bends. Once this is taken into account, we need at least 32 m.

Once the essential service roads are brought in, the minimum RoW needed goes up to about 45 m. (This was the minimum figure agreed as an exception only for Kerala).

Finally, wherever grade separators - flyovers or underpasses - are needed, the minimum RoW width goes up to 52 m."

With 30 m RoW only, we will be left with no service roads, no utility corridor, no drains - in short, poor roads. Forget widening to 6-lanes!

And this is not rocket science. The width is calculated in very simple terms. For example,

RoW = Carriageway width + median width + shoulder width + drain width

There are accepted standards for each of these, like 3.3 m for each lane of the carriageway or 1.5 m for the paved shoulder. Fool around with these and one risks creating dangerous roads not better ones.

One wonders why these simple figures were not discussed before coming the jarring decision of suspending land acquisition and stalling the entire Rs 10,000 Crore project. The sort of confusion prevalent is exemplified by the whole controversy of why land acquisition is often only one side of the existing highway. The answer is that the design is done to make maximum use of empty land, the existing road (saves construction cost) and to achieve the best alignment. Hence, the land acquisition is done based on the center line of the proposed road and not of the current one.

The best we can hope for is a delay of at least one year and that in the time elapsed saner minds will prevail and allow a RoW of at least 45 m. The onus for land acquisition and rehabilitation is on the State Government as the State is the principle beneficiary from cheaper and more efficient road transport solutions and safer roads for its citizens. Remember that this same Government successfully acquired land along 42 Km of roads in the Capital city. The length of NH-47 passing through urbanized areas would be much less than this figure and even then we are talking of small towns like Kottiyam or Karunagapally, not of a metropolitan city like Trivandrum. Evictees can be suitably compensated monetarily and through bonus FAR for reconstruction, a strategy which has been successfully followed elsewhere in India. It can of course demand Central support to meet some of these costs since all of us are funding the Highway development program in the form of a cess on the fuel that we buy daily. It can even opt for annuity funding instead of a full BOT approach but if there is no compromise on the road width, I fear we will be burdened with narrow, poorly built roads for the foreseeable future. We can also kiss goodbye to such lofty ideas as the Expressway or the Outer Ring Road.

TDF has been campaigning for the six-laning for the NH-47 from Attingal to Vizhinjam in anticipation of the massive development coming up along this stretch including the Vizhinjam deep water port, Technopark Phases I, II and III and Technocity, totaling up to over Rs 20,000 Crores of investment and a helluva a lot of traffic. We even did a study and created a proposal for the Government and our MP. Such fools we were to assume that 45 m of width was all said and done!
NH-47 Six laning
View more presentations from Ajay Prasad.
For a copy of this study, please contact TDF.

The friend who had offered his expertise had been raring to come to Kerala and build good roads in his home State. Looks like he will have to wait for a long, long time. Last heard, he was contemplating a transfer to Kargil.

As for the rest of us, I think our best hope will be one of these -

Image courtesy:


  1. We are ruled by a group of morons who dont have gutts to take challenge or think wisely! Just like they did a harthal against 45m road, I am thinking of one for the right for better roads even though I hate harthals.

  2. This is ridiculous. After wasting all these years behind the 'toll issue', now are we starting to fight over the width? Now when it is sorted out we may start over the colour of the asphalt.

    Its been proven time and again: our political parties can join hands only for destruction. A 30m wide 'highway'! I hope the Central Govt directs this memorandum straight into the shredder and cracks the whip on Mr. Sudheeran and co who kicked off this issue.

    Talking about Container Terminal, Industrial Parks, technoparks, stadium complexes et al without any roads? I'd like to know what policy the Kerala Govt has drafted in terms of the road development of the state. No wonder Expressways and co remain a pipedream for everyone in the state.

  3. Woe to Kerala because we put our trust in these blind politicians!!!

  4. The CM has "requested" the media not to "misinterpret" this decision.
    We are already 10 years behind the rest of India in Road development. Maybe the geniuses will soon give a consultancy project to reclaim land from the sea to build a road.

  5. Ajay, thanks a lot for the excellent analysis with facts. Clueless and corrupt politicians are a curse to our state.

    I have a rather emotional blog post on the issue here -

  6. People are ignorant of the progress the expressway will bring to kerala..Those who love China so much should also follow its policy of laying expressways (1000s of kilometers every month)..every politician should work for their citizens..we need visionary leaders..

    near my house.theres a bridge which is abt 100+ yr old..built by a king..those days normally bullock carts traversed the there was no need for a wide road..had the king or his people thot they didnt want such a wide road..many future generations would have suffered(ya they automatically would have built one..still..)the same 100+ yr old bridge built by the old king is still used today..KSRTC "aanavandis" heavy trucks all use the bridge..these politicians + anyone who oppose the expressways arent even qualified to say they r working for keralas advancement..if theres any other way..let them do ? flying cars ?im not joking..mayb that tech wil become common one day..still then WE NEED WIDER ROADS..ATLEAST 6 lanes..yesterday i took 40 mins to cover 3 kilometers..and ours is a small TOWN (at other pts of day the beverages queue causes another traffic block..tats another problm)

  7. Good analysis. Unfortunately our politicians are living in stone age.

  8. Unfortunately neither the so called "cultural leaders" nor the ignorant politicians of Kerala will see or understand what is stated in this blog.

  9. Pliticians ,,, please see how the infrastructure facilities in Bangalore is progressing each day...please understand the facts .... do atleast something usefull.

  10. Good effort to point out the problem and also solution for it. Hope Shashi Tharoor works on this..

  11. Guys..whatz the point in blogging...change the people we vote for

  12. As the author tell, the govt should publiscise the info on the the evictions needed. and aim towards making a 60m wide highway.

  13. Nice post. Unfortunately, only sensible politicians like Tharoor agree. More unfortunately, such politicians are asked to resign.

    I'm not from Kerala but I do hope Achutanandan is shown the door by you guys in the next elections.

  14. I was directed to this blog from Mr.Taroor's tweet, and indeed this is a true representation of facts. Anyone who has travelled along the 12 km stretch from Aroor to Vytilla along NH47 will understand the enormous volume of traffic that is already on our roads, and at how an alarming rate it is growing. Its only a matter of minutes before a single Traffic Light failure at the Kundannur Junction stretch the queue of vehicles from Kundannoor to Vytilla along the 4 kilometers. 'Vision' - that is what our politicians lack. And now, there is this 15 kilometere proposed flyover from Kundannur to Edapally. I just wonder whether the fate of Kochi Metro is awaiting the Flyover as well. Oh yes, I know Metro is still on paper, but remember its 6 long years, since it was proposed, and nobody knows how long will it still be there! God Save his own country..

  15. There is no plan for 45m road. Road will be 30m, but they need land of 45m. Don't get mislead with politician like silver spoon baby.

  16. Good post. Money-minded politicians do their part in making the rich become more richer at the expense of the common man. And they do that quite well!

  17. Ajay, eviction required for 45m highway would be like this. Total affected would be 11283 persons. If we breakup, 5111 houses, 5643 business establishments, 187 tabernacles and 342 historic monuments. In this some are fully and some partly affected. Can’t the govt. do this for us and for future generations?

  18. Thanks for all the information furnished, But In Kerala - Except for all Plannings, Realizations never happens as the years 2010 - 2015 - 2025 - 2050 pass by. I had a chance to travel in Shanai Manglev Train (SMT) which coveres 30km in 8 mins, and also the fast trains in china which covers 250km per hour.
    Thinking of traveling from Kochin to Tvm in 2hrs.. before death .....

  19. we yet to know what we require , send our politicians to Malaysia, we dont require hitech industry or IT parks, just a infrastructure for smooth traffic movement , rest god has given us, it is shame most beautiful state with varieties cant exploit its potential bcoz of lack infrastructure ,by the time we decide to have 45 mtr NH ,we will loose another 20 yrs.

  20. Thanks for the feedback, folks. Let's try and build awareness about this issue among as many people as possible.

    Vinod, what's the source of that info? The project DPR?

  21. Keralites will show the door to Achutanandan for sure in the next elections only to bring back Congress who are no better. I feel there is political will lacking in Kerala to bring in any development. By political will i mean, the kind of vision and passion with which people like Chandrababu Naidu, Narendra Modi work...

  22. Hi,
    I think, it is high time respond to all these idiotic things we are facing in Kerala. Remember its all our money they are not using for our own good purpose.!!!
    I wish we have some good politicians, who are capable!!!! The problem is politics has become so bad that, no literate good people dare to step forward!!!! I am sure if that happens, he will easily win!!! Because, keralites have suffered enough of this dirty games!!!!

  23. These comments are rather depressing.. Vinod has brought up a very relevant issue. It is a necessity for all of us and immediate attention is required. The important question from my part is that "What can we do about this??" Blaming politicians, goin for strikes, signing circulars etc etc are the normal modus operandi. But all this have been exploited to the fullest. So wats the more "civilized" but sure shot action that can be taken. Guess being sort of the "Informed commentator" vinod can help us. Can u vinod??

  24. ajay, it was there in yesterdays New Age business daily. is editor's mail id.

  25. The problem here is the cost Govt pays for Land, they pay only Rs 30 K/cent when the prevaling rates are Rs 3 L. This is the about people who lost land for NH in Thrissur region (60 M aquired)
    May the govt provide at least Half the Land, Pref on NH side for the people who surrender Land.

  26. I am just wondering how may of you have to bear the consequences of expanding the roads to 45 or 30 m, whatever it is. I don't think any one will argue whether we have to expand the roads or not. There are no issues about it. The question is who is going to lose and who is going to gain without losing much. All the people who stay near highway have to lose a lot. Do you think the government is going to compensate for their pain and relocation to a difference place? You could argue that similar problems have happened in the world and people were sacrificed for their better development. I think it will be a joke if you say the same thing to some one in Kerala in 2010.

    My point is, of course we need better roads, but not just expanding the current one. Why not build a highway above our railway line from mangalore to Thiruvananthapuram. There are examples in the world where they built superfast highways on concrete pillars.

  27. Also, some one quoted the numbers of evicted person doesn't make sense to me. I have traveled quite a bit from Payyanur to Calicut many many times. Let us do a rough calculation..The length of the high way is roughly around 130 km. On an average I assume that there are 2 buildings per 100 m. This is again average and this could be much more dense in town areas and little bit smaller in other areas. However it is really hard to find places where are there are no buildings within a span of 100m. Therefore I would assume at the very least there are 2 builds per 100 m on an average. Each building is connected to atleast ~ 5 person. I think this is roughly on the lower side. If you do the math, ~ 13000 people will be effected in 130km stretch. Assume the total highway is around 600 km, the total number of people affected is going to be roughly 6 lakhs. That is the roughly the population of Alaska. That is the twice the population of Iceland. Imagine the situation where all of them from Iceland/Alaska were asked to relocate to another place. It will be a headline news in CNN for many weeks.

    I would say first there should be a concrete plan on how are we going to address the relocation of people due to this expansion. Also, there should be exact estimate of how many people are going to impact due to this project. This 11,000 quote is not any where near to the reality. I might personally know 11,000 people just in between Payyanur and kozhikode.

    This is not Phoenix, where I live right now, where people moved in after the city is built. The same dynamics won't work in places like Kerala.

  28. Gr8 blog seriously it was good to see this type of blogs

  29. 1)The rest of the world is bulding wide, good roads - our CM says accidents are not due to narrow roads!!

    2)State govt brought a law banning spitting in public places - Kochi corporation passed a resolution against it saying spitting is a human right!!

    3)Kerala HC ordered for making helmet compulsory for 2 wheeler passengers - Home minister and CM asked police not to trouble non-helmet wearers!!

    4)Smoking in public was banned - kerala CM (nayanar) asked police not to trouble public smokers and minimized the issue.

    5)All ministers travel in cars that violate traffic rules and travel much above permitted speed limits!

    6)Even in fully developed 4 lane areas of NH-47 (eg, between Angamali and Thrissur), speed limits marked are 30kmph and 40kmph. Why keep such ridiculous speed limits? Once a friend of mine was caught doing 80kmph and the policeman said - though the limit is 40, we allow upto 70!!

  30. Kerala is so much like Kolkata. Only great history and now full of Gas. The common man will prefer to sit in the chaaya kada with newspaper and pazham pori for many more years to come. Now with the road widening, our chaaya kadas are also under attack !! We, the cattle class will have to feed on grass eh!


  32. very informative blog post followed by a serious dicussion. i agree with Robin that wherever the government acquires land, anywhere in India, the owners are cheated of value. and what a pain and tortuous procedure it is to get the compensation amount from revenue authorities. let government come forth with a handsome compensation package, one which awards owners sums much higher than the market rate, and note the difference. the basic problem we fail to address is to reform our land acquisition act, a law which fails to protect and safeguard the interests of the landowner and grants him a pittance.

  33. Hi ,

    Very good article. I did a bit of quick research and found the following about Motorways (highways) here in the UK.

    M1 a major motor way in England (Length 193 miles(310.6 km))with 6 lanes (3 each way),2 hard shoulders and central reservation is only 107 feet (32.6 mt) wide. M62 again 6 lanes, with a wider central reservation is only 133 feet(40 meters) wide. The standard width of a motorway lane is 3.65 metres (12ft).

    So while am fully in support of a 45 meter highway in kerala, I wonder why we can't build a proper 4 lane highway (with barricades, hard shoulders and drains) using the 30 meters.

    Source: Design Manual for Roads and Bridges (DMRB)

    Am I missing something?

    Kind regards,

    Anish Kurien

  34. Can BPL be daringly and differntly interpreted as the "Bureacracy People Liason"?

  35. Isnt 30m width good enough for 4 lanes?! US interstate standards stipulates a minimum width of around 30m.(ref: wikipedia) But then US interstates are not Toll Roads (for most part), and doesnt have to accomodate service roads for the same reason..

  36. As the one who wrote about widening our roads way back in 1990, I have posted my views at

    Kindly visit the site and do the needful.
    Dr. K. Kishore Kumar


Thanks for your comment, I will take a look at it and put it up at the earliest.