The recent monsoons have been as intensive as those of the past six years, if not more so. And the first casualties have been the roads of the city. Of course, it ought to come as no surprise, given the quality of road laying that is practised. It is an open secret that not all the money allocated for such activities ever gets spent on what it is intended for and contractors need to perforce cut corners if they need to make a profit. And given the steadily increasing traffic, the roads are being put to great pressure and very few manage to stand the strain. In the light of this, the new administration at the city corporation has announced that it would be looking at concrete roads as the panacea.
The announcement was made after the usual accusations (now customary whenever there is a regime change in the State) about the previous regime having allowed the use of substandard materials. And it is now understood that within the next five years, Rs 2500 crores will be spent on laying 1100 km of concrete roads in Greater Chennai. This will be a long-term solution says the Government, claiming that concrete roads have an average lifespan of at least 25 years. The roads to be thus relaid will be of international standard promises the Government.
The advantages of switching over to concrete roads are many. Apart from their long life, they also save on fuel, provide for better driving comfort and will use cement, a plentifully available commodity in the country. Maintenance costs will also be lower.
But there are several drawbacks as well. Firstly, concrete roads require a long time period for laying and setting, as much as 28 days for a one km stretch as opposed to a bitumen topped road that requires one fourth the time. And during the time they are being laid, traffic will have to be completely closed, something that is unthinkable in this city where work on the Metro is already putting commuters to great hardships. Bitumen roads also cost only one-fourth of what is the outlay for concrete roads. Next is the impossibility of ever cutting up concrete roads to access drains and cables, something that is common practice in our city. The avoidance of such road-cuts entails proper planning before the roads are laid, with ducts for drains and cables that can be independently accessed. Past experience (MRTS et al) has shown our officialdom of being completely incapable of such coordinated activity.
Next, is concrete a solution for a city like ours? These roads have no dust absorption capacity and so that will only increase the particulate content in the atmosphere. Also concrete being white in colour will radiate heat causing ambient temperature to go up. Is this desirable in Chennai that is already witnessing a steady increase in temperatures during summer?
It would be good if the Government ponders over these aspects before jumping headlong into this new technology. But given the speed at which matters are moving, it appears that the minds of the powers-that-be are already made up. In the immediate short-term, patchwork has begun on the roads that have been battered by the recent rains. It would do our officers and ministers a world of good to drive around and see what is ground reality. Once they see the fashion in which patchwork is done and the quality of what has been laid earlier, they may pause to think over whether concrete roads may not be complicating an already difficult situation.