Down the roads >> In India
Pandit Ji and Panditayen are sitting on a couch with a map of India spread on the table. They are at loggerheads over the best means of transport for their trip to Rajasthan.”I want to take a train,”says Panditji. But Panditayen waves him aside.
“No, let us take a bus. It would be more comfortable and convenient. Who uses trains these days for such small distances?” argues Panditayen. So finally, Pandit ji gives in and agrees to take a bus.
Off they go with their packs and bags to the bus terminal. Now comfortably ensconced in the bus, looking outside the window, Pandit ji sees a well laid out road, stretching out before him with lines of trees on each side.
<< from there to here >>
Indian roads through the ages
>> Harappa and Mahenjodro (5000 BC - 2500 BC) of the Indus Valley civilisation had road maps as a part of their city plan.
>> Roads and their maintenance became significant during Emperor Asoka’s reign. There were huge monoliths across the country, a Banyan tree every 1.5 km, rest houses and watering stations.
“With the coming of theBritish, all these systems declined. Surely that has changed now. We all depend so heavily on roads. For everything”
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, thegroundwater 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.
It maybe the 21st century, but New Delhi is not Chicago. Unless the needs of non-motorised modes of traffic are met, it will be almost impossible to design any sustainable transportation system for Indian cities.
A sustainable transport system must provide mobility and accessibility to all urban residents in a safe and environment friendly mode of transport.
This is a complex and difficult task when the needs and demands of people belonging to different income groups are not only different but also often conflicting. For example, if a large proportion of the population cannot afford to use motorised transport — private vehicles or public buses — then they have to either walk or ride bicycles to work.
Provision of safe infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians may need segregation of road space for bicyclists and pedestrians from motorised traffic or reduction in speeds of vehicles. Both measures could result in restricting mobility of car users.
<< Indian Reality: The same road space is used by mercedes, maruti, honda, tata, suzuki, volvo, buses, van, three-wheeler auto, scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, thelas, tongas, elephants, push-carts, horse/bull/donkey/camel pulled carts >>
>> Increase in use of public transport also results in an increase in walking/bicycling trips.
>> At present pedestrians and bicyclists have a much higher risk per trip of being involved in an accident than those using cars.
>> It is not possible to have efficient bus transport systems with designated lanes for buses unless segregated lanes are provided for non-motorised transport.
A Case for the 'Poor' Bicyclist
Some experts argue that while India's poor are vital to the urban economy, they are too often forgotten when it comes to transportation.
In Delhi, 57% of the total trips are less than 5 km. This means 4.5 million daily trips are less than 5 km.
30% of bus trips, 44% of scooter/motorcycle trips and 60% of all three wheeler taxi trips have lengths of less than 5 km.
Even if 5% of these trips are converted to bicycle trips, it means 1.1 million additional trips. This would not only lead to substantial savings in fuel but also drastically reduce air and noise pollution. This shift may create capacity for transfer of motorcycle/ scooter or car passengers to buses.
“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 treasuresfrom rare herbs to the big cat- are brought closer to the habitats of their preys by a well-laid out road.
Land, soil, water. Three vital elements of Nature are affected by road building. But the damage keeps spreading. “It must poison the air, too,” thought Panditji, as his bus trundled along the jungle path, “These vehicles emit all kinds of polluting gases, don't they?”. Yes, roads lead to a sharp rise in traffic. And we all know that emissions from vehicles contain pollutants like Nitrogen oxides, Carbon monoxide, Sulphur dioxide, and suspended airborne particles from diesel and patrol. Result? Animals, plants, and human beings living and working near the roadways breathe in dirty air. Soil, water, crops — nothing can escape the onslaught of air pollution. Roads are supposed to be agents of 'good' change, as far as the surrounding communities are concerned.
They provide better, cheaper transport, and access to markets. In a nutshell, they pave the way for a better lifestyle. But as Panditji leaned back on his seat and closed his eyes for a quick nap, the face of the bewildered farmer — who was clearly taken by surprise by his bus a while ago — floated into his mind. The old man has probably taken this path all his life on his way back home from the fields. He still has not got used to the super track and the mechanised giants that have invaded his domain.
“So roads take over the habitat of humans, as well,” decided Panditji. Yes, they do. The spanking new expressways and their super fast traffic cut off the traditional routes that were till then being used by the local people. They also block the way of non-motorised vehicles like bullock carts and cycles. In other words, they completely disrupt the travel patterns, and hence the social and economic activities of the locals.
But still...a green signal!
“But hey, can we really do without roads?,” Panditji suddenly sat up,”No, we cant. So we have to find ways to build better, safer roads.” What are the precautions that need to be taken? The following steps, if taken, may make a huge difference:
“First, find out!: A proper, full-scale assessment must be done to find out what kind of effect a project would have on the environment, before it is launched. Satellite remote sensing technology, and aerial photography can be used very effectively in this process. Thanks to these tool now specialists can assess and quantify the state of forests; conditions of seas; changes in vegetation-in short everything that alters on the surface of the globe-and make predictions about the future, with very high degree of accuracy.
“Then avoid, mitigate and compensate!: Once the scale and types of impacts are identified, steps can be taken to steer clear of major damages and to make amends, wherever possible. For instance, road projects can be kept out of the most ecologically sensitive zones. And if hill slopes just have to be cleared, then replanting can be started as early as possible, in order to prevent the worse effects of erosion.
“Keep the communites in the loop: Not only because they would be affected the most, but because they know the terrain best. And they would be able to provide extremely valuable information on local conditions, also offer tips on the mitigation measures that would work best there.
Laws: going nowhere
Such guidelines do exist in India. To counter the effects of highway projects on environment, the Indian government has made environmental impact assessments (EIA) compulsory. The Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) came out with the EIA notification in 1994, which include projects involving construction of highways and other major roads. But unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to the rules.
Environmentalists complain that 'it has become fashionable for the government to wave aside even sound environmental objections, dubbing them as impediments to the project's progress'.
Take the case of the East Coast road in Tamil Nadu, which stretches between the southern outskirts of Chennai and Pondicherry. The highway was freshly paved and converted into a toll road. This decision was taken without consulting the residents of the area. Worse still, no attempt was made to compensate local people whose transportation costs shot up due to this.
Road or rail?
So if roadways usher in a set of serious ecological and social problems, are there other modes of transport that offer a better, safer deal? “Railways, of course!”, said Panditji to himself. In fact, he would have been sitting inside a train compartment, even at this moment, if he had not given in to Panditayens yearning for the bus…. Railways can be described as the most ecofriendly option of all modes of surface transport available today. Not convinced? Well, just listen to this.
Chugging along: Trains in India ferry a gigantic majoity of the people. But charge abnormally low fares. No wonder Indian Railways is dogged by a chronic diease — lack of funds!!
The Congressional Budget Office in the United States has done a study comparing various modes of transport in terms of energy use. It concludes that in terms of energy per ton-mile, tucks use more than railroads. Unit trains carrying coal require less than 900 British Thermal Unit (BTU) per ton-mile of cargo. Intercity trucks consume much more energy-they need about 3,400 BTU's per ton-mile of cargo. That's twice the rail cargo.
There's more. The carrying capacity of railways is much higher than trucks. Light rail and subways, driven by electrc motors, reduce air pollution. Even diesel electric locomotives pollute less than auto travel. And Indian Railways has a massive infrastructure—it runs around 8000 passenger trains, and owns gigantic network spread over 63,028 route kilometers. Yet, of late, it has been losing out heavily on freight share to roadways. It's share has fallen from a high of 89 per cent in 1951, to a meagre 35 per cent now.
So why have rails been lagging behind roads? Because of lop sided government policies and poor, outdated technology…IR's freight rates subsidise passenger traffic. So while its freight tariff is the highest in the world, its passenger train fares are one of the lowest. They are 2.5 times lower than bus fares in the country. For instance, the cost of travelling from Mumbai to Hyderabad by bus is around Rs 230, but it is just Rs 69 by train! So the train fares obviously do not cover the actual costs. Result? IR still operates on outdated technology that was imported way back in the 60's! Perhaps it is time to think of investing in -if not a Golden, but at least a Silver Quadrilateral of rail tracks in India.
Panditji is convinced. Are you?