Potholed Hell Holes – Indian Roads during Monsoons!

Every year, year on year, Indian cities and villages and the roads connecting them become hell holes – potholed to such an extent that it is downright dangerous to traverse these. Fatal and non fatal Road accidents, due to pot holes abound, but very rarely is the condition of the road blamed for causing accidents. Much attention is given to over-speeding and non-wearing of helmets as causes of accidents, but very rarely do we say that “if only roads were designed and built better, we would have many of our young population alive”!

Its important to understand that the degradation of roads is because of a multiplier effect of various reasons. Roads rarely get damaged due to use (or overuse) only. Overuse along with presence of water, leads to rapid degradation of the road surface. So, a road that’s fine over an entire year, rapidly disintegrates with the first showers of rain. So water has a big and important role to play in degrading road surface, particularly when roads are made from asphalt or bitumen. Since it has a lesser damaging impact on concrete surfaces, we see cities with money, spend frivolously on concrete roads rather than asphalt roads. In Pune, for example, we have seen a massive spending on concrete roads- in fact the concrete road fervor has a reached a point of obsession that even smaller by lanes have been now concreted, pushing asphalt out completely. But the fact remains that good, well built asphalt roads are much better for our vehicles, offer a smoother ride and are relatively better in ensuring water also seeps into the ground, unlike concrete roads.

Corruption, while an important aspect in degrading roads, is not the only one to work in isolation towards bad roads. If it was, we would have seen better roads inside private societies and private townships. Even here, we find roads in a bad shape during monsoons. However, corruption definitely leads to misjudgment of technical priorities and shoddy construction techniques become popular to save time and money. So, a contractor, can get a road contract for 50 Crores, of which he needs to pay 5 crores as kick backs. So effectively, he ends up with 45 crores to actually do the job. He now compensates for the shortfall by use of shoddy material or less use of material and faster construction. So a base layer which is so important for the road, is completely missed and the road gets constructed in less time, less material and less labour cost. Plus, there is a chance to win the same contract again next year, knowing that the road will get washed away in the monsoon.

However, due to this, a more damaging impact that is seen over a longer period of time, is that road construction starts getting done by missing the base layer, as if it never was a requirement in the first place. As a standard road making practice, every time, a step is missed leading to wrong techniques being employed in road construction, as a regular and accepted practice. This is exactly what has happened in India, which tell us why even private developers are unable to make roads of a quality that we see in other countries.

The most important aspect compromised by missing one base layer, is grading. If you see a well designed and well made asphalt road, it has, what is known as, a Camber – that is, the road has a peak at its centre and it slopes down towards the side. This basically ensures that any water that falls on the road is carried quickly, without any stagnation, to the road sides and into the storm water drain that runs alongside.

On Indian roads, this grading for Camber is totally missing! Hence, even when storm water drains are made, water rarely reaches these drains. Water just flows along the path of least resistance to wherever the slope leads it. It stops, when it finds a depression in the road. Asphalt is a porous material and hence water seeps inside and into the base layer, which is missing some crucial layers. As a result the road starts degrading.

The second point where road starts disintegrating is the side of the road. Often road contracts are awarded a contract to ashpalt the vehicular carriageways only. This is a bad practice in road contracting and needs to be stopped immediately. Road contract needs to be given fully, where edge treatment is a necessary feature of road design and construction. So we see the contractor lay out the asphalt in the centre, leaving the edges or sides completely unfinished. The dirt edge at the side, coupled with the flow of water and stagnation of water, starts disintegrating the road surface from the sides.

So where do we go from here? First and foremost, politicians and city administrators need to understand that laying a road is not just about coating a base with asphalt. There is a serious technique involved. Its not rocket science, but there is a systematic way in which this needs to be done. As soon as we realise the importance of road construction, we will know that we cannot compromise on aspects like grading, having a proper base layer and having a finished edge to complete the road. Miss any of these steps and you will need resurfacing every year. Do all these steps fully and systematically, and we will have a road that will last us 10 years.

Now unless there is a serious effort to ensure roads should not last and make money off every road contract, its another matter! In such a case, we need to change political representatives and corrupt officials immediately. Period! Elections are around the corner and ensure that you will throw out people who are giving you bad roads for years together.


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