As the monsoon retreats, India is once again left with potholed roads. Like malaria and other monsoon-related diseases, potholed roads are an annual affliction. Yet, there is no reason whatsoever why India cannot have all-weather roads in this day and age. At over 33 lakh kilometres, India has the world’s second-largest road network. The density of its highway network is also comfortably high, similar to what the United States has and much higher than what China and Brazil have managed to achieve so far. The road network in India has another critical dimension as far as the country’s infrastructure is concerned. It carries almost 90 per cent of the country’s passenger traffic and about two-thirds of its freight. Dependence on roads has risen sharply since the country gained Independence with the Indian Railways not making much progress over the years and, therefore, losing its share in passenger traffic and freight business to the road network. A corollary of the rising dependence on the road network is the congestion that has choked the smooth flow of traffic on it. This should not come as a surprise because national highways account for a mere 2 per cent of the total network, but carry about 40 per cent of the road traffic. To add to the woes, most roads are narrow and suffer from poor surface quality.
The irony is that the Indian road network’s biggest strength is also its weakest link in maintaining connectivity across the country. An estimated 80 per cent of the national road network consists of district and village roads, but over 40 per cent of India’s villages do not have access to all-weather roads. Thus, large parts of India, by definition, may remain connected with the road network, but its reliability and utility in thousands of villages are a question mark every year after the monsoon rains and floods. The problem of poor roads afflicts not just the villages, but urban India as well. A look at the condition of roads in major cities, including even the national Capital, will bring out major weaknesses in the manner in which the government and civic authorities execute road projects and maintain them. Even national highways connecting state capitals with New Delhi do not escape the ravages of weather every year.
Three kinds of problems have afflicted India’s road network. One, there are engineering flaws at the time roads are constructed, not only in villages and districts, but also in big towns and cities. Consequently, roads have allowed for accumulation of rainwater on them, creating potholes and breakages. Two, even the best roads need proper and regular maintenance so that they retain the requisite surface quality. Even tolled roads under maintenance by both government and non-government agencies suffer on this count. Three, there is no clear policy direction either at the central or the state level on the nature of all-weather roads that they must build. Indian road planners have so far favoured asphalt roads over concrete roads, although in several parts of the country in the last few years they have used concrete for building large stretches of national highways and even roads in villages, towns and cities. Concrete roads have the advantages of durability (rains cannot ravage them easily) and are more fuel-efficient for vehicular traffic, although they pose maintenance problems in case they break. In comparison, asphalt roads are less costly and take less time in construction. Surely, building good roads that outlast a few monsoons does not require rocket science!