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.
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
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: Technabob.com