Early last month, I needed to get to Surat for a day trip. Surprisingly, there is limited air connectivity to this bustling city, and the least painful option was to fly to Mumbai and then drive up a few hours (sidebar: a successful Surat diamond merchant told me that squeezing Surat’s connectivity is a conspiracy by the Mumbai-based Gujarati diamond community to ensure it does not get cut out of the business flow).
We drove up from the airport towards the suburbs of Mira Bhayander on the Western Expressway, which merges into National Highway 8 (NH-8) at a bridge over a creek, locally named “China creek” for reasons I couldn’t ascertain. The traffic on the Western Expressway was heavy, but flowed reasonably well—until we came to the China creek bridge, the exact point where NH-8 begins. There was utter chaos, with commuter traffic clashing with interstate vehicles, miles of lorries occupying whole stretches of the road, and hundreds of dhabas that had sprouted along the sides like congress grass. My benign indulgence soon gave way to exasperation, as the 100m stretch took more than 30 minutes. I asked the driver, “Is there something wrong with the traffic today, or is it always like this?”
“Nai saab, hamesha aisa hi hota hai (No sir, it’s always like this),” he replied.
This isn’t just another tale of traffic angst, it’s more fundamental. It’s a reflection of the mess we are making of the transition zones in our transport corridors. When the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) develops a Golden Quadrilateral, or announces ambitious road projects, it doesn’t address these transition zones at the threshold of our cities and towns.
Instead, we seem to be stuck in some 1960s-era “bypass” thinking, blithely ignoring how these traffic snarls will sort themselves out if we brought these six-lane—soon becoming eight-lane—pipes of traffic to the doorstep of our cities, and merged them into the black holes of our urban mess.
There are massive economic consequences (leaving aside the safety issues, environmental hazards and that orphan child called aesthetics in our country): The entrances to every major city—and even moderately sized ones—are suffering serious coronary conditions. Unfortunately, it’s nobody’s problem, since NHAI’s responsibility is to build the highway, which ends at some random jurisdictional point—China creek. Unfortunately, problems in the real world don’t come with departmental tags attached. Millions of man-hours are wasted every day, not because this is a contentious political issue, but because of institutional schizophrenia.
The US interstate highway system evolved to recognize the importance of this problem. Thousands of miles of what are called “auxiliary interstate highways”—the feeder and connector systems to the main highway network—have been built, and a whole taxonomy has evolved. Two examples: “spurs”, which are stretches of road that begin on a highway and end on a city road, and therefore require specific detailed designs of ramps, merges, etc.; and “beltways”, which are complete sections of auxiliary roads that circle a city, what we in India called “ring roads”. These auxiliary highways are funded substantially by the federal government, and are designed and executed in collaboration with state and city authorities.
In India, most major cities are undertaking ring road projects on their own, resulting in challenges on many fronts: inadequate funding, since city finances are so hobbled; poor or incomplete design, since they are not integrated with the highway network in an efficient way; and weak tendering and contracting procedures.
As surface transport minister Kamal Nath and his ministry look to announce new highway initiatives in the budget, addressing the challenge of the urban periphery should find mention. One suggestion is to create a new department in NHAI—say, “auxiliary highways”—which will be specifically mandated to address the issue of urban transition zones. Their brief should be to work with state and city governments, come up with blueprints for the development of connector and feeder highway networks in and around our key cities, starting with the seven mega cities.
If done intelligently, this can also address key collateral items such as truck terminals, bus depots, logistics hubs, mass transport corridors and wholesale markets, all of which tend to feed off this kind of auxiliary highway infrastructure. Over time, financing for these transitional highway networks can actually come from the land monetization for these assets, which can be shared between NHAI and the state/city governments, so that there is no incremental fiscal burden on the government, and a win-win for all stakeholders.
An “auxiliary highways department” in NHAI can not only address the China creek bottlenecks that are slowing our economy, it can show that the government can shed our “bypass” mindset and be innovative about solving our infrastructure bottlenecks. Very often, it’s not just about throwing money at a problem.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org