When Rains Fall, the Roads Break: Can We Prevent It?

Source: Mukesh Rawat

The hilly area of Uttarakhand is a very fragile region highly prone to disasters. 90% of the passenger and freight transportation is dependent on roads. Despite this, every year during monsoon the roads are damaged or remain blocked for days. A close view of the road construction/management process in Uttarakhand reveals that the state fails to follow even the basic principles of road construction, which compounds to the natural disasters…sometimes even triggering them.

Source: Mukesh Rawat
  • This article was published in Terra Green–an internationally circulated envirnmental monthly published by TERI, in July 2017.

During the course of a lecture last year, a senior journalist remarked that states such as Uttarakhand figure in our media reportage primarily when there is a major natural disaster—a bus carrying tourists meets an accident killing many or during monsoon when roads are washed away or blocked due to landslides.

Though said in a lighter vein, this observation is not far from truth.

Being a very sensitive part of the Himalayas, Uttarakhand regularly experiences natural disasters of varying intensity. Much of its area is classified under Seismic Zone IV and V (the most prone to earthquakes). The roads here are narrow with sharp bends and often pass through steep slopes. Road accidents are thus very common.

Furthermore, every year during monsoon most of the roads get damaged or are blocked for days at a stretch, often jeopardizing the lives of the hill people. Since topography becomes a major hindrance to reach out to far-flung areas in Uttarakhand, poor quality of roads and regular road blocks not only mean denial of basic amenities to the people but also a setback to the tourism industry which is a major contributor to the state’s economy.

Government reports suggest that around 90% of the state’s passenger and freight transportation is totally dependent on roads. To facilitate easy and economical transportation, it is imperative that roads remain reliable round the year. Failure of this generally results in escalation of vehicle operating cost, maintenance cost, replacement cost, and travel time.

The loss that Uttarakhand suffers because of road blocks and the resultant burden on the exchequer can be well judged from the government’s own admission that about 14,000 km of motor roads and 1,000 km of bridle path were damaged during the monsoon of 2010, 2011, and 2012 in Uttarakhand. To get this repaired, the Uttarakhand Annual Plan 2013–14 urged the Planning Commission to grant a ‘Comprehensive Road Replacement Package’ amounting to 800 crore per annum.

The situation thus far

In 2006, in order to boost its road infrastructure, the then state government conceptualized an ambitious programme known as ‘Uttaranchal State Road Improvement Programme’ (USRIP).

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) was approached to sanction a loan to finance it. In its report, the ADB made scratching remarks on the then prevalent road conditions in Uttarakhand and their poor maintenance by the Public Works Department (PWD).

Source: Mukesh Rawat

It was observed that “the use of outdated and inappropriate construction techniques, coupled with weak quality control, has reduced the effective working life of the asset (the roads) to around 50 per cent of that expected using international best practice. This, in turn, has led to increased maintenance and replacement costs.”

It further said that the procedures adopted by the PWD do not encourage contractors to adopt modern technology that would raise production rates and improve quality. Furthermore, “periodic maintenance is generally carried out by local contractors using nnkmostly labour intensive, outdated, and inefficient construction methods”.

The USRIP was designed to be a 10-year-long programme, by the end of which it was expected that road infrastructure in the state would be strengthened and the technical assistance received would equip the professionals to build and maintain world-class roads for the hill state.

In this period, no doubt the road network in the state has increased manifold. Hundreds of remote villages have now been connected with roads. There has been an increase in vehicle ownership and the transportation facilities for passengers and freight have also improved relatively.

However, this has not translated into adoption of best practices. Even today, the roads that are being constructed are mostly of inferior quality and the technical assistance that was provided by the ADB is yet to be demonstrated in road construction and maintenance works in remote areas.

This has also been revealed in a 2014 report titled, ‘Uttarakhand Emergency Assistance Project’ presented by the Uttarakhand Government to the ADB. The report reveals that despite roads being the lifeline of the state, “the quality of the road network in Uttarakhand has been poor and constraints the economy of the State.” This is not something limited only to the hills.

The genesis

Why is it that the roads in Uttarakhand get blocked or damaged in a similar fashion every year? Is it purely because of the forces of nature or is it largely because of our lackadaisical attitude in road construction and maintenance activities?

It is true that a part of this problem is beyond our control. Situation such as major landslides blocking a road is one such example. But a large part of the problem stems from the fact that even the fundamental principles of road construction and maintenance are overlooked in the state.

If we carefully observe the road construction procedure and the maintenance work in Uttarakhand, we can easily find that most of the damage to our road infrastructure occurs not because of natural calamities, but due to our careless attitude—right from conducting a survey for a new road to its maintenance once constructed.

Ignorance of fundamental practices of road construction

Ignorance of fundamental practices of road construction leads to damaging of roads in many ways as enumerated here.

Firstly, since 2000 when Uttarakhand emerged as a new state, the network of roads has increased manifold. Apart from the national and state highways, many local link roads have been constructed using the funds available to the MPs and MLAs. Most of these link roads are less than five km in length.

Road are dug out at the mercy of labourers with scant regard to scientefic factors such as load bearing capacity, soil composition, slope gradiant and prousity. Source: Mukesh Rawat

The contract for their construction is almost always given to a local contractor. Little attention is paid to scientific factors, such as load bearing capacity of the soil, slope gradient, composition of the hill, slope stability, water-holding capacity, vegetation, porosity, drainage, seismic activity, etc. All these are very important factors that ultimately decide the fate of the bare mountains once a road is constructed.

Secondly, since these local roads are generally constructed without any scientific/technical assistance, the diktats of the contractors come into play. To save time and money, the road is often dug in a manner which connects the two end points in the shortest possible way, often with complete disregard to the geographical factors mentioned above. On many occasions one finds that even the contractor is not present at the operation site and every technical decision is left to the discretion of the labourers. In a region as fragile as Uttarakhand, if this is not an open invitation to disasters, then what else is?

Thirdly, it is a common experience at road construction site in the hills to see the debris being dumped down the slope. It is true even for the national and state highways. This results in blocking the natural drainage of the hills. As a result, during heavy rains the water seeps in the barren surface like a sponge, often to an extent that a sizeable part of it caves in or is washed away, along with the road. At times the debris also blocks the flow of the rivers/streams creating artificial lakes which can result in massive destruction in lower regions.

A common site at road construction in Uttarakhand. Source: Mukesh Rawat

The same problem is also witnessed in the construction site of various hydroelectric projects in the state. This was also highlighted in the report of the expert committee formed under the directions of the Supreme Court of India in the aftermath of the Kedarnath disaster in 2013 to assess the role of hydroelectric projects in the disaster.

The committee observed that “mountains of soils and debris are dumped over denuded slopes” along the river banks. This “increases the turbidity of the river” and during monsoon floods have the potential to add on to their damaging potential.

Fourthly, since the debris of road construction is generally dumped along the slopes of the hills, the existing vegetation also gets damaged. The least that the concerned authorities can do is initiate fresh vegetation so that the virgin slopes can be stabilized over the years and erosion is prevented.

This, unsurprisingly, remains unimplemented.

Fifthy, perhaps the biggest injury to the roads in the hills is caused by the absence of proper side drainage in the roads. While travelling in any part of Uttarakhand, the one common architectural blunder that we come across is that all-weather roads, including national and state highways, scarcely have a functional drainage system running parallel to the road to carry the excess water along with it.

Keeping the roads dry is very important to prevent the occurrence of potholes. Where the drains are present, they are usually found in a sorry condition. Clogged with weeds and garbage, these cosmetic drains end up aggravating the damage instead of preventing it. A functional side drainage is important because it helps in keeping the road dry during torrential rains as most of the excess water flows through the drains (if properly maintained) and surface run-off on the roads can be minimized.

Source: Mukesh Rawat

Lessons to be learnt

It is not that these practices are not mentioned in the standard operation procedures or that the concerned department is not aware of them. Way back in 2006 itself, the ADB had pointed out many loopholes in the working of the PWD and even made recommendations for change. The problem, however, is in the implementation.

If the Uttarakhand government is seriously desirous of providing the natives with quality road infrastructure that is not damaged every year by the monsoon showers, perhaps it is high time that it reads its own reports on the quality of roads in the state and initiate some course correction. It is definitely a positive sign that at least the government reports have correctly documented the problems.

The administration cannot afford to approach disasters as if they are events without processes. Its reactionary quick-fix ad hoc response to road construction and maintenance will only result in further draining away of the scarce resources at its disposal.

  • This article was published in Terra Green–an internationally circulated envirnmental monthly published by TERI, in July 2017.