Voices Tuesday, April 07, 2015 - 05:30
Dr. Munish Kumar Raizada The moment you land in USA, the most noticeable feature that amazes you is the general ambience of clean air, clean roads, smooth traffic and most importantly, a soothing environment. The discipline of human management, apparent conformity to the environment and a fair dignity for the inhabitants is palpable. Whereas in India - whether it is a city like Delhi, Mumbai or a tehsil level town, the human misery perpetuated by unplanned and increasing urbanization, slim and malnourished bumpy and broken roads, pools and heaps of garbage and moreover utter disregard for environment and its citizenry is evident. And in the last decade, the explosive growth of vehicles in the absence of proportional expansion of road network has resulted in a picture of sobbing Mother India! Decent roads in India that let you drive with dignity: Am I asking for too much? Proper garbage disposal system in our towns and cities so that we do not see litter around: Am I asking for too much? Remember, technology dealing with building the roads and garbage disposal are not new inventions. They are at least a century old. They are not rocket science! The road network in a city is like circulatory system of the human body that brings vitality to the life. The drainage system in a city is like lymphatic system of body that drains away the toxins.  An optimal network of robust and scientifically laid down roads while following environmental norms adds to the vigor of its town. It is also a reflection of quality of governance since infrastructure is one function citizens collectively depend upon the governments to perform. We inherently know that creating good infrastructure serves an all-around purpose: It makes transportation easy. Businesses grow. It adds to the spirit of the city USA understood the cardinal rule six decades ago: If the country has to remain competitive, it has to have a strong network of roads in place. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953- 1961) was a champion of this cause. He signed into law the Federal Aid Highway Act on June 29, 1956. Over next 35 years, the country witnessed massive laying down of highways. The expansion of the network continues till date. From Eastern end of long Island (in New York) kissing the Atlantic Ocean to far end of California touching Pacific Ocean on the West coast, or be it Northern most tip of Maine to southernmost dip of Florida, the whole USA is widely woven through the interstate freeways. The roads are not merely flat, lifeless concrete structures. They are the lifeline of America. It is a sheer pleasure to drive on American highways, aided by the heart-charming landscapes, forests, farms, mountains and lakes. Typical speed limits for driving on these roads are 55- 65 Miles per hour, but on a couple of roads in Wyoming State, they will even let you touch 80 Miles per hour. In each direction of the highway, minimum two lanes are the norm. Note that interstate highways in USA are also called Freeways. For those interested in numbers, as of 2012, the country boasts of highway network spanning 46,000 miles (approx. 77,000 KM). From East to West, Interstate -90 (abbreviated as I-90) runs from Boston in Massachusetts to Seattle in Washington covering a total length of 3,000 miles or 48,000 KM, thus ranking as the longest highway of USA. There are some more interesting facts about US highways. For instance at some routes, there is a lane reserved for High Occupancy vehicles (HOV), that is, for vehicles carrying more than one passenger (excluding driver) during peak hours. The concept of ‘Ring Roads’ is another underutilized mechanism in India. The USA boasts of a major network of what we call ‘Ring Roads’ in India. This term is though rarely used in USA. Commonly called loops or beltways or even bypasses, as a result of which, for travelling from A to D, you need not traverse through B and C. Each city is connected to other cities via external routes. Therefore, in the US, the heavy logistics’ vehicles (not meant for weak local roads) do not need to enter the cities which aren’t its final destination. While the opposite happens in India when these heavy vehicles enter the cities and damage the local roads. Apart from deteriorating the roads, this also creates ruckus in the local traffic. And it is not just the length that sets it apart, its meticulous planning and strict rules have further added to its capacity. The country boasts of one of the world’s most efficient emergency response mechanism. Anyone facing an uncalled for situation can call phone number 911 from anywhere in the country and expect immediate local assistance. Usage of ‘Air ambulances’ is a common sight in the US to reach out to the far flung areas. Apart from national highways, America has a dense spread of state highways and local roads- all having superior quality of structure. Potholes and unexpected bumps on the roads are a rarity.  In India, while we search for decent roads with starry eyes, the US has been letting its citizens thrive on robust roads since decades. Now, coming to the story of India! Indus civilization was known to have planned housing and roads. Grand Trunk Road was built four centuries ago and in current avatar, it spans 2500 KM from Bagladesh to Pakistan. Rudyard Kipling had called GT road as "such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world."  So where has modern India lagged behind?  Let us crunch some numbers, first! The Indian Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MORTH) claims that India has a total of 92,581 K M of highway network, much larger than the US’s number of 77,000 km. Remember, India is 1/3 the size of USA, while the population is more than 3 times of USA. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) claims that India has a total network of 33 Lakh km that includes all kinds of roads, including rural roads. It says that the national highways comprise of 79,000 km. If we look at the World Bank data, it says that the total road network in India is 46 Lakh KM, whereas in USA, it is 65 Lakh KM. And road density (km of road per 100 square KM of land area) is 143 in India compared to 67 in USA. The readers should not be surprised by lesser road density in USA. There are major land areas in USA (for example, West) with sparse population. In terms of road density of national highways, India stands poorly at 7.7 KM per one lakh population, whereas the number for USA is 25.  In terms of these stats, it may look like we are doing just fine, but take a bike and dare to go on a long distance ride in a tier two city and you would realize the bumpy truth. The existing condition of the roads is no parameter while calculating the net length of the road network.  Apart from the undeniable shoddy condition of our road network, absence of logical planning has led to the underutilization of our vast road network. While the projects such as the Golden Quadrilateral launched by the Vajpayee Government for connecting Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata are a welcome step, they are too far and few in between. For the Prime Minister Modi and BJP- that fought its entire election campaign on the agenda of ‘unforeseen development’- revolutionizing and modernizing Indian road network must be taken as a priority. And Mr. Modi’s newly announced project of building 100 Smart Cities in India will surely remain a dream in the absence of an efficient road network! In addition to creating a nation-wide network of technologically advanced roads, there is a need to improve the percentage of our 4-8 lane highways from the existing meagre 23%. Unless that happens, we can’t think of India as a place to look up to! The author is a Chicago-based medical doctor (Neonatologist) and a socio-political commentator. Twitter:@drmunishraizada