That’s Rs 15,000 cr down that hole

The caving in of a portion of the prestigious and newly-built six-lane Agra-Lucknow Expressway last week is another reminder of the danger that lies in wait for passengers on India’s highways. The 300-km expressway had cost about Rs 15,000 crore and was built in record time when Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party government was in power in Uttar Pradesh. It was claimed to be strong enough for fighter planes to land. If a highway of such high credentials suddenly opens up a crater 20 feet deep and swallows up an SUV, lesser roads can do greater harm. The SUV, stuck in the crater and poised precariously, is an image of life hanging by the slender thread of luck for passengers on most roads in the country, big or small, old or new. What would happen if a Rs 1,600-crore Rafale fighter lands on it in a future emergency? 

Both the Akhilesh Yadav government and the Narendra Modi government had claimed credit for building the showpiece expressway, but who will take responsibility for the collapse of the road? The UP government has ordered an investigation which, if past exercises are a guide, would blame the rain for the cave-in. The government has also said that the construction agency that built the road would rebuild it. All this is fine, but the Rs 15,000-crore question posed by the road and the multi-million-dollar questions posed by many other roads in the country beg the right answers. The country has seen a fast-paced road building programme in the last two decades. The Modi government has claimed that it has increased the pace of the programme and is building over 21 km of road every day. But the quality of roads is not measured in kilometres, and so the questions pop up from potholes, cracks and craters everywhere. 

When lakhs of crores of public money is spent on building roads, it must be ensured that it is well spent. The problems and issues connected with road-building are the same in Agra, Bengaluru, Guwahati and Amritsar. The Agra highway hit the headlines because it is an iconic stretch. Many other roads may have caved in or may have been done in other ways elsewhere the same day. That reinforces in concrete the need for greater commitment to quality, and for care, monitoring and supervision at every stage of the work. Everybody, especially the politician and the contractor, loves a good road project, and that is the major problem. Roads should not be political expressways either, but social and economic highways that boost welfare and development.  

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That’s Rs 15,000 cr down that hole

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