Sunday, January 10, 2010

We have the expressways, but what about the pedestrians?

I have driven from Chennai to Bangalore and back several times in the past few years, including 3 times in 2009. In my aging car, far from the fastest on the road, the one-way trip takes around 6 hours -- but about a third of that time is spent within the two cities. It takes barely four hours to go from Poonamallee, on the outskirts of Chennai, to Electronic City, on the outskirts of Bangalore, thanks to the new four-lane expressway, part of the "golden quadrilateral" project initiated by former prime minister A B Vajpayee. Some of the cars that pass me on the drive are, I am sure, doing over 150 kmph -- they probably take under 3 hours to travel between the two suburbs.

I called it an expressway, but that is a severe misnomer. At very few points is it elevated: nearly all crossings are on the surface, meaning you had better slow down as you approach them (though very few drivers do) -- and you had better be extremely cautious if you actually want to cross that road. There are several small towns and villages en route, and I wonder what life is like for their residents, especially the elderly and infirm among them. It cannot be fun crossing a 4-lane expressway, with 100+ kmph traffic, on foot when you are over 80 years old. Why couldn't elevated roads have been built across inhabited areas (as it is at Vellore, the largest town on the route)? The cost is certainly more, but what about the human lives saved?

It is the same story near where I work: the road once called "Canal bank road", now called "Rajiv Gandhi Salai", and informally called the "IT corridor", is a 4-lane road that, for an over 2 km stretch between the Madhya Kailash and Tidel Park intersections (well within city limits), does not have a single traffic light. Traffic routinely goes at 80kmph on this stretch, and I am sure some vehicles do well over 100kmph. The powers that be eventually, after much protest, installed some pedestrian overbridges, but it is far too little. Whose bright idea was it to have an "expressway" at surface level in the middle of the city? Worse, an important hospital, the Voluntary Health Services (that caters mainly to the poor and less-affluent sections of society), is situated near the beginning of the road, but on the "wrong" side for people coming from central Chennai -- so they are forced to take a 4km detour, to the end of the road and back, to enter the hospital, adding to their travel costs.

Which brings me to two news items that intrigued me recently. The first is this article on the NICE expressway in Bangalore, and how recent protests from villagers have stalled traffic on it. Says the article,

The NICE peripheral road is turning into an anomaly of sorts as commuters are finding it difficult to traverse through the expressway. For a week now, traffic on the peripheral road stretches linking Mysore Road-Tumkur Road and Mysore Road-Bannerghatta Road have ground to a halt, what with farmers protesting against alleged excess land acquisition resorting to road blockades.

The Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise (NICE), meanwhile, is losing lakhs of rupees in the form of toll fees collected from the vehicles. The aggrieved company has shot off a letter to the state government demanding its intervention to resolve the issue.

Nasty villagers, blocking law-abiding, toll-paying car-owners from using the shiny new expressway in their SUVs and Volkswagen Jettas because "excess land" was acquired. How can an expressway be built without acquiring land? Don't we all know that expressways boost the local economy? What are they complaining about?

Well, deep inside this article (which is about a spat between Deve Gowda and Yeddyurappa, I find a different version of the protest: the villagers are "demanding that NICE build a bridge across the road in the wake of a recent accident involving a school bus".

How about demanding that expressways be built elevated over all villages, and with grade-separaters at all existing intersections? Or else, install a few traffic lights and stop calling it an expressway. This perversion of the word "expressway" is a fraud on the Indian people, and a deadly one. [Update 11/01: Sridhar points out in a comment that an "expressway" is only partially access-controlled and may have a few at-grade intersections, while a "freeway" has no at-grade intersections. But I don't think the term "partial control of access" applies to our expressways. They go right through towns, even medium-sized towns like Ambur on the Chennai-Bangalore road, effectively cutting them in two.]

If the villagers can get hold of a good lawyer, I think this would be PIL material -- by no means restricted to NICE.


Anant said...

Excellent piece. I believe there was a piece on the Bandra-Worli sealink and the absence of any facilities for pedestrians by Mahesh Dattani (unfortunately I don't have a reference).

clash said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
clash said...

Roads are made in India without any foresight. Most of them are total ecological disasters.

We have to take in to account, the societies that thrive in these areas, where we are planning to build roads.

In most cases, these high speed lanes turnout to be a bifurcating presence across many villages, affecting the psyche and functioning of villages.

Add to that an increased number of causalities for Humans and animals, it turns out to be nightmare for people who are living around these lanes. There is not much business scope out of a road, especially an express way.

Recently there was proposal in Kerala to build an raised express way all the way from trivandrum to Kasargode in the north. Some studies proved that, it could literally lead to a bifurcation of the tiny Kerala state. In places like Kerala there are options of alternate methods of travel. the dutch govt has done a feasibility study in kerala to revamp its existing water ways. which could really revolutionize transports and tourism but no one gives a heed coz money is to be made from the soil business. it is a big lobby.

Anonymous said...

The NICE project has seen several cases and the SC has apparently recently ruled in favour in the promoters. The latest decision was in Nov/Dec,609+acres+to+NICE&artid=T4ChhK|00x8=

"The government has decided to hand over 13,609 acres and various tax benefits to the Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises Limited (NICE) — the private company implementing the Bangalore Mysore Corridor (BMIC) project.

A high-level committee acting headed by Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa acting on the directions of the Supreme Court took the decision on November 19."

That said, expressways need not be elevated. What you probably had in mind was "access controlled highways" or freeways which are have no crossings at grade and hence are partially elevated, though apparently the terminology is varied.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

clash - yes, expressways through ecologically fragile areas are another problem. I'm not against expressways where feasible. I just think the existing populations need to be respected. If they are, an expressway could greatly benefit a town.

Sridhar - thanks for the clarification, incorporated. I don't think "partial control of access" really describes the situation with our expressways.

km said...

I wonder what life is like for their residents, especially the elderly and infirm among them.

And I'm sorry, but if you want progress, someone's gotta lose. It's the law of the jungle, Rahul.

About the B'lore-Mysore corridor: The "word on the streets" is that project has been stalled for last few years for reasons that have little to do with planning, engineering or technology. Just plain old greed. But who really knows?

Great post, btw.

km said...

When HTML gets {sarcasm} tags, please feel free to add it to the second sentence in my comment above.

And hello, fellow Clash fan!

madraskaari said...

So "No Country For Old men" is really about India not having decent sidewalks for its senior citizens in cities, towns or expressways passing through them :-)

Anonymous said...


There is a National Expressway Authority of India coming up dealing solely with expressways. (there is also a National Highways Authority). Once that is up, maybe there will be standards for what counts as expressways and only completely access controlled roads will be called expressways, hopefully, at least for newer expressways.