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Faultlines under the asphalt

Rasheed Kappan, July 27, 2013, DHNS:

Water is the hot mix asphalt's worst enemy. So when stormwater is allowed to stagnate, most City roads are predictably bound to be ruined

As Akshay effortlessly drove his car at high speed on the Elevated Toll Road, comforting was the thought that he could finally compensate for all that time lost in snail-paced traffic. But a few feet below, on the crowded untolled Hosur road and the chaotic network of cross roads, the less fortunate commuters cursed their collective fate, the potholes, the rains, the glaring official apathy… 

For lakhs of Bangaloreans, inevitably caught in the daily gridlock, glimpses of those wide, hassle-free, tolled roads keep them wondering: Why can’t roads within the City be designed that way; why had they to endure potholes that shouldn’t have been there if the stormwater drains were built differently; why had the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) deliberately refrained from learning lessons from mistakes, year after year!

The return of the monsoon has predictably ruined most City roads. Gaping potholes have emerged on many arterial, sub-arterial and cross roads, a direct result of the stormwater reacting disastrously with the Hot Mix Asphalt (HMA). “Water is the biggest enemy of Hot Mix. For storm water not to stagnate on the roads, our design of the Stormwater Drains (SWD) should have been scientific. This is not the case, there is no proper connectivity of the shoulder drains to the main lines,” notes Ravichandar V, Chairman, Feedback Consulting, an expert on urban roads. 


The HMA, a combination of stone, sand, or gravel glued together by asphalt — a product of crude oil — is effectively the topping on the road. However, it makes up only 10 per cent of the road. The problem, as anyone with a basic knowledge of civil engineering knows, lies below. Making up 90 per cent of the road are the layers of base, sub-base and levelling. But in their rush to calm public anger, the Palike contractors fill up the potholes with construction debris and a layer of hot mix, without addressing the problems lying underneath.

British era technology

Yet, the exercise of pothole filling itself should have been totally out of place in a City, which once harboured hopes as a global icon. For, the HMA, the soil and sand are part of a British era technology. To be precise, the water-bound Macadam method pioneered by Scotsman, John Loudon McAdam in 1820! But this technology will continue to inspire civic agencies here, because the potential for potholes, pothole filling, repair, maintenance, is endless. So are the lucrative contracts.

Now, see the “concrete” alternatives. “The small stretch of road connecting the MG Road-Brigade junction with Cubbon Road was concreted in the 1970’s. It has never been relaid,” points out Naresh Narasimhan, an urban design architect. The HAL road stretch running parallel to the Suranjan Das Road from its junction with Jeevan Bima Nagar to Old Airport Road, has endured damage for even more years.

Concrete, all-weather roads, with permanent utility ducts underneath, neatly structured pavements and drains might be expensive in the short run. But the lifetime costs of repair and maintenance of the roads built with ancient technology would be far higher, contends Ravichandar. “This might be obvious. But the loss in productivity because of office-goers getting stuck in pothole-ridden roads, could run into thousands of crores of rupees annually.” Time, he reminds, is money.

Beyond the NICE Road, Elevated Hosur Road Tollway and the Airport Road, efforts have been made to overhaul existing roads in the Central Business District (CBD), using new technologies and global best practices. But duplicating the successful transformation of Vittal Mallya Road as a street of global standard, has not been easy. BBMP’s repeated efforts to attract bids to transform seven city roads under the Tender SURE project have failed to elicit any response.

Indications are that the big contractors in the road sector are wary of the Palike’s expertise in handling such quality-stringent projects. Then there is the cloud of corruption, as exposed by innumerable scams in the recent past. Road-building has been a fertile ground for small-time contractors, engineers and even officials to gang up to squeeze out every potential rupee in a project. “Almost 60 to 70 per cent of the money is often siphoned off. Only about 30 per cent is spent, mostly on the top 10 per cent layer of a road which everyone sees,” discloses a source, who has closely studied the working of BBMP road projects.

Comprehensive upgrade


The cycle of potholes and poor repairs can only be broken with a long term, comprehensive upgrade of the roads. But roads cannot be looked at in isolation, they have to be combined with mobility. Public transport buses have to be doubled with a network of mini-buses and other modes of transport, observes Ravichandar. Naresh emphasises the need to look at a road as a “Right of Way” (RoW), the width of which extends from “compound wall to compound wall.” This implies an overhaul of the drains, underground utilities, and the footpath space.

Once this is done, there should be no scope for something like potholes, reasons Naresh. “The contractor should guarantee that the roads are pothole-free, for say, five years. The maintenance contract should be clear about this.”

Road maintenance is not rocket science. The manual on road-laying, maintained by BBMP, is comprehensive and authoritative enough. As a member of the Technical Advisory Committee for the Palike, roads specialist Prof C E G Justo had spent long periods dissecting the anatomy of road-laying. He had, for instance, stressed the critical need to maintain impeccable drainage of storm water. The need for the right camber (curvature of road surface from the centre to the sides) was highlighted to avoid water stagnation. Yet the manual has largely remained only on paper.

“Forget the manual, even the field engineers are often not seen at the project site,” says Justo.
So, the problems are manifold despite the plethora of expertise and untapped resources. The government will have to surmount the challenges of apathy, mediocrity and corruption if it were to come anywhere close to realising the vision for roads in 2020, envisaged by the Karnataka Information and Communication Technology Group. Developing 1,940 km of arterial and sub-arterial roads, and 8,000 km of other internal city roads as per Tender SURE guidelines is part of that vision.   

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