Bad to the Bone - Roads in India
By Vishvjeet Kanwarpal

History of Indian Roads

While the Indus Valley achieved greatness in town planning and developed perfect streets, the history of transport roads in India could be dated to at least 3,000 B.C. starting with the Aryans thundering into India on their horse drawn Chariots. The history of broken axels, damaged suspensions and bent wheels continues to be recorded to this day on our roads even though the only remnant of the horse is “horse power”.

Tired of the state of transport in India, Sher Shah Suri, in the 16th century, built afresh the Sadak-e-Azam ("great road") running across the Gangetic plain. This road is said to be the precursor of the Grand Trunk Road stretching from Peshawar to Bangladesh.

The British undertook major road-building activity to serve their military and administrative needs. The government convened a conference of Chief Engineers at Nagpur in 1943. This conference prepared a 20 Year Road Development Plan for the entire country, called the Nagpur plan. (However it is reported that many could not reach the conference due to the condition of the roads). While many of the targets of the Nagpur plan were achieved by 1961, there was still much to be done.

The Chief Engineers of various states adopted a 20 year Road Development Plan (1961-81) popularly known as the Bombay Plan. (Having learned from their previous experience the new plan was developed in Bombay to deny anyone the excuse that they couldn’t reach due to the state of the roads).

Highways “Shining”
With privatization and private participation in road sector and toll-road development, the Indian road network is fast being catapulted into the “world class” category. One no longer speaks in awe of the German Auto-Bahns and the Expressways of the West. India is fast arriving! Gone are the days when the primary concern in a long drive was the state of the spare wheel and the availability of puncture repair shops on the highway.

Today India boasts one of the largest road networks in the world at 3.34 million kilometers. However, less that 2% of India’s road network (about 65,000 kilometers) is classed as National Highways (NH) with another 4% classed as State Highways (SH). About 14,000 kilometers of the National Highways require four-laning, while another 10,000 kilometers requires widening from single lane to two-lane to facilitate proper flow of existing road traffic.

The remaining 94% of India’s road network falls under the categories of Major District Roads (MDR), Other District Roads (ODR) and Village Roads (VR). In addition, only 50% of the total road network of India is paved. While development and maintenance of National Highways is under the purview of the Centre, all other categories of roads come under the purview of the respective States/ UT Governments.
The state’s Public Works Department (PWD) has apparently been at work since 1854 allegedly constructing and maintaining roads, bridges and buildings. Its true aims are however, shrouded in mystery like the Free Masons.

Mathematics of Traffic Jams
India’s National Highways while comprising only 2% of India’s road network, carry 40% of the traffic in India. This explains why a generally exhilarating (and often life threatening) experience is guaranteed on the National Highways of India. No visitor to India has escaped without jarring memories of less than a few “close shaves”.

Vehicle traffic in India is growing at about 12% per annum whereas the roads are growing at rate of 7-10% per annum. This suggests that the traffic situation on the whole is likely to continue to worsen. The average productivity of a truck is 200 kilometers a day as against 350- 400 kilometers that would be possible through reduction of congestion.

The Magic of India’s Roads
Three traders were comparing notes on how tough things were getting in their respective states. The first stated that he was fed up with the fact that his goods were disappearing from his trucks enroute to their destination. The second scoffed and stated that in his state his trucks were disappearing along with the goods. The third lamented that in his state the goods, the trucks and the roads were disappearing without a trace. Statistics reveal that the total length of paved roads in certain states actually fell in several successive surveys.

The Role of The Monsoons
With the arrival of the monsoon, the farmers rejoice and so do road repair contractors – for the monsoons irrigate the roads paving “the way” for next years’ bumper harvest of road repair contracts. Just as with crops, this is a perennial source of income. Thus the monsoons are often called the lifeline of India for more than one reason.

It is a highly specialized and unique Art to construct and repair roads in such a way that they pass the initial inspection and last for a few months, but are assured of being completely decimated by the next monsoon. It is also takes a very skilled ability to ensure that the potholes are evenly spaced. This is necessary to convince every VIP car occupant that the roads must be repaired but at the same time the potholes must not be so closely spaced that they result in such discomfort to VIPs that an inquiry is instituted.

Heritage Vintage & Classic Cars
At the onset it could be argued that there are adequate National Highways in India for the enthusiasts of Vintage & Classic cars to drive on. That would be a weak argument at best. How is one to share the Heritage of India in the form of Vintage & Classic cars with the real India if one was to limit the drives to only the immediate regions around the major metros? Must driving in India always be a challenge and never a pleasure?

Is is true that Heritage Vintage & Classic Cars were never designed for Indian road conditions. Unlike other automobiles of necessity, Vintage & Classic Cars can be driven only in the cooler months to avoid overheating and damage to the engines.

The net effective cost of bad roads in India is phenomenal and multi faceted. Many of the MDRs, ODRs & VRs can be classified as “Forced-Safari” routes. The damage they inflict on all vehicles and particularly heavily on Vintage & Classic Automobiles includes (but is not limited to):

• Overall Wear & Tear
• Damage to Vehicle Suspension
• Damage to Wheels & Tyres
• Damage to Engines by Slow Running or having to drive in the 1st or 2nd gears
• Fuel Inefficiency of driving in 1st or 2nd gears & resultant increased costs
• Driver & Passenger fatigue

The one element that sets owners of Vintage & Classic Automobiles apart from owners of other vehicles is the fact that, they are almost without exception, personally involved in the restoration and maintenance of their vehicles. They put their heart and soul into their cars often raising these beautiful cars from the dead. The damage caused to cars by the bad state of the roads may be measurable, but the impact on the emotions of the owners and enthusiasts is not.

At a cumulative level, the cost of bad roads to the end users & citizens probably far outweighs the cost of good maintenance of roads and most certainly the “benefits/bounty” accrued to the road-repair contractors.

Bad to the Bone Scientific Equation
A first hand scientific study conducted by one HMCI member recently revealed that at over 25-30 km/hour, when the potholes on the road are at shorter distances than steering reaction time, it spells disaster for even the most well kept Classic Car.

The statistical analysis across several case studies revealed that the probability of a Classic car escaping unscathed on Major District Roads (MDR), Other District Roads (ODR) and Village Roads (VR) is very low. In the last live trials (across 1,000 km testing) it was adjudged to be in the range of about 20%.

The need of the Hour

Were roads to be improved the economic benefit would be fantastic keeping in mind just a few of the statistics quoted in this research:
• India’s Non-National Highways carry 60% of the traffic in India.
• Reduction of expensive fuel imports at high cost by improved driving efficiency.
• The average productivity of a truck is 200 kilometers a day as against 350- 400 kilometers that would be possible through reduction of congestion.

There are far too many reasons why the government needs to focus on the quality of roads in India on a war footing. The question is whether these concerns will reach the right ears and subsequently receive the urgent action they merit.

Vishvjeet Kanwarpal, CEO, Asia Consulting Group is a Life Member and Member of the Governing Body of the Heritage Motoring Club of India. He lives in Delhi and owns an Austin A-40, 1948.

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