It is the 'thread that binds the nation together'. Roads play a vital role in trade and boost industrial growth, as they connect towns and cities with markets and ports.
Indian road network is the second largest in the world. It has a grand system of national highways, state highways, roads running within cities, and even of the little by-lanes. There are about 66,590 km of national highways, 1,31,899 km of state highways, and an informal network of about 3,117,963 km. The total exceeds 3.3 million kilometers!
Estimates show that Indian roads carry almost 65 per cent of freight and 80 per cent of passengers annually. Traffic on roads is growing at a rate of 7 to 10 per cent per annum. The growth in the number of vehicles has been around 10.16 per cent per annum over the last five years.
The Department of Road Transport and Highways, under the Ministry of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways, develops and maintains roads in India. It is now implementing the most ambitious project — the Golden Quadrilateral and North-South and East-West Corridors.
Panditji is suddenly jolted out of his daydreams, as the bus comes to a sudden halt.
There is a Neelgai in front of the bus. “It would have just died! Can't it see that it is a road?” complained the concerned Panditayen.
The bus resumes its journey as the Neelgai crosses over to the other side. Only to stop after five minutes. This time Panditayen almost falls out of her seat! Now there is an old, frail farmer in the middle of the road - looking completely baffled at the sight of the huge vehicle. The driver yellsat him, as all the passengers lean out of the windows to watch.
But, Pandit ji now looks a little anxious. “Are the Neelgai and the farmer coming in our way or are we intruding in their lives? Do roads cut across lives as well?”
Hmm….Panditji is now confused. Don't roads
spell development and prosperity? Surely a wide network of intricately-connected, well-maintained tracks helps
a country to race ahead... It brings the markets
closer, ensuring that everyone, from a farmer to a business man can transport their wares-sell and buy with ease.
It connects people to schools, jobs, hospitals, banks… everything. A set of good roads can actually work like a magic wand, transforming a backward, poor and remote region into a buzzing action centre!
All this is true of course. But roads have some major negative impacts as well.
On environment, and on the local communities who happen to come in the direct path of the roadworks. Like the Neelgai and the befuddled farmer who just missed being hit by Panditji's bus. Yes, roads bring in intruders. All kinds of them.
“So roads disrupt as well,” Panditji scratched his head thoughtfully.
Gujarat boasts of the best road network in the country, with Ahmedabad-Vadodara national expressway as a jewel in its crown. The villages situated along this track are probably the most well connected rural units-as compared to the rest of India. So are they on a fast track to progress? Not really. When torrential rains hit this region in 2005, people living in Dajipur, Jorapur, Chingodhar, Khatrapura, Hajarpura and numerous other villages, were rendered homeless. Because the expressway, built above the ground level in some places, acted as a wall, not allowing an outlet for the water!
The desperate villagers were left perching atop the expressway, the only high ground available to them. The much-hyped roadway, which also breached at three places and suffered huge damages, began to look like a massive flood relief camp.
Erosion is the most common environmental impact of road projects. The construction work disturbs the interaction between water flow and the soil. It blocks ditches and damages natural depressions that act as water control structures. Result? Chaos and human tragedy, of a chilling proportion that Gujarat experienced.
Roadworks inevitably usher in major upheavals in the soil in and around the project site. Now, soil is a medium of a variety of biological and human activities. It affects how ecosystems function, supports agriculture and other livelihoods. So when the soil is disturbed, it sets off a chain of impacts. “A super highway can lead to deforestation, erode bare slopes in mountainous terrains. This in turn can trigger landslides, even change the route of rivers and streams! My God, I hadn't realised how huge this is,” thought Panditji.
Actually it is even bigger. Roads also contribute considerably to changes in the flow and quality of surface water (rivers, tributaries, and lakes) and groundwater. They alter the natural run of rivers and this leads to flooding, erosion, and siltation of streams. And these effects may be felt well beyond the immediate vicinity of the road. Also, paving a road reduces the soil's capacity to soak in water, so the risk of water run off goes up.
When the land is dug up to build tracks, the groundwater table in the surrounding areas get disturbed too — it sinks in some areas, in others it rises beyond its natural level. This can alter the vegetation pattern in that zone, or even lead to loss of water for drinking, farming or fishing.
So farmers may lose their crop and land and fishermen stand the risk of losing their livelihood-only to make way for a highway!.
But the most lasting impact is on the quality of water. Sedimentation, changes in river routes (that upset the fish population and other fauna and flora in the their beds and on the banks), spills of chemicals and effluents while the construction work is going on, can pollute water extensively. And most often irreversibly.
“If land and water bear the brunt, how can animals and plants be spared?” muttered an agitated Panditji. They are not. When a road cuts through a forest it divides it into two halves. It isolates the animal and plant populations on either side of the way. This 'severence' can actually result in complete extinction of certain fragile species. Also roads eat up habitat space — robbing animals like tigers and lions off the domain that they need to breed, and to hunt in order to survive…
It also paves the way for human predators. Yes, poachers of all varieties who plunder Nature's treasures-from rare herbs to the big cat- are brought closer to the habitats of their preys by a well-laid out road.