Taking A Toll On And ‘From’ Commuters: A Sorry State Of National Highway Affairs In Coastal Karnataka

  • Rains have come and once again ruined major National Highways such as Shiradi and Charmady ghats.
  • Who is to blame for this recurring mess and drama is anybody’s guess.
  • With many contracts, whose terms are inviolable, having been issued by the UPA government, even the current dispensation appears to have its hands tied.
  • M RaghuramSaturday, August 17, 2019 9:38 pm IST
    With National Highways such as Shiradi ghat road among others in pitiable condition, it is the motorist, and not the politician, who is weeping all the way. 
    With National Highways such as Shiradi ghat road among others in pitiable condition, it is the motorist, and not the politician, who is weeping all the way. 

    Is it the rains or the poor quality of roads in the six ghat areas of the state the cause for the mess we are in currently? A definitive answer is not easy, as both factors contribute to the crisis the western part of the state is now facing.

    All the six ghat roads are now in bad-to-very-bad condition. They are so unsafe for motorists that the district administrations of Hassan, Dakshina Kannada, Chikkamagaluru, Shivamogga and Kodagu bordering the western ghats have decided to shut the Charmady and Shiradi ghat roads.

    The Barebail, Hulikal, Bisale and Sampaje ghat roads are also not in a condition to accommodate the currently heavy volume of traffic between Bengaluru and Mangaluru.

    The traffic density survey conducted in 2017 has recorded that every 45 seconds on an average, a Very Heavy Tonnage Vehicle (VHTV) passes through the Shiradi ghat road on National Highway (NH) 75, every 70 seconds on Sampaje ghat road, and every 100 seconds on Charmady, followed by Heavy Tonnage Vehicles (HTV) at an interval of 30 seconds on an average.

    At any given point in time, the Amhai bridge, which is one of the main bridges where traffic surveys are conducted, has traffic of 25 Passenger Car Units per minute (a PCU is the equivalent of 8 passenger carloads). It could be minibuses, cars or any other vehicles that are equivalent to Registered Laden Weight (RLW).

    This load of vehicles meets its match at Nelamangala NH 75 intersection and another at NH 7 on Ballari road. Charmady and Sampaje ghat roads follow with 18 PCU and 16 PCU per minute respectively. These three highway passes are constantly in the headlines for all the wrong reasons during the monsoons.

    A National Highway in the district ravaged by rain. Note the absence of service roads here as well. 
    A National Highway in the district ravaged by rain. Note the absence of service roads here as well. 

    A former civil engineer of the Public Works Department (NH division), on condition of anonymity, told Swarajya, “The very foundation of the roads have not been laid scientifically. The Indian Road Congress (IRC) has clearly mandated that National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which has specified the traffic load, must have the corresponding foundation for its thoroughfares. For a road having the traffic volumes of Shiradi, Sampaje and Charmady ghat stretches, the foundation should have a depth of 1-metre with a specific quality and size of material”.

    “If this is not in place, the surface of the road develops cracks, resulting in depressions and subsequent cave-ins. This was what happened in Sampaje in 2016 and in 2017 as well. In any case, mastic compounding of the top surface is mandatory, according to the IRC, the officer added.”

    A National Highway in Udupi district, minus service roads. This is a violation of Indian Road Congress rules, say experts. 
    A National Highway in Udupi district, minus service roads. This is a violation of Indian Road Congress rules, say experts. 

    Why The Constant Erosion Of Ghat Roads?

    The answer to this question has been as elusive as the solution itself. Except for the concreted part (45 kilometres) on Shiradi ghat, the road has no drainage. All the stormwater flows on to the road, eroding the bituminous surface faster than its inbuilt life.

    The concreted part also suffers this anomaly, but since it is hard tarmac, the rainwater does not erode it. Drains have been laid but the rainfall is so heavy that they overflow with stormwater.

    This makes driving tough even for those who steer the heaviest vehicles. There were times when the contractors had complained about the low-quality of bitumen supplied by petrochemicals companies.

    “Back in 2008, when Shiradi ghat was first closed for six months, we got oil-mixed bitumen, which did not settle on the road. It wore out in the first rainy season in 2009, thus resulting in my company being blacklisted by the government for alleged poor workmanship. Even now, I am not able to recover the cost of laying the road from the government fully,” claimed Jayanth Shetty, a contractor.

    Chambers Brainstorm On Hinterland Connectivity

    The Kanara Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and their Mysuru, Hassan, Shivamogga and Chikkamagaluru counterparts have raised concerns about bad connectivity infrastructure between New Mangalore Port and the hinterland.

    Sudhakar Shetty, president of the Federation of Karnataka Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FKCCI), told Swarajya, “The New Mangalore Port is a gateway to Karnataka’s maritime activities. Our long-pending demands with the government were to construct all-weather and stable highways through critical passes such as Shiradi, Sampaje, Charmady and also keep other ghat roads at Bisale, Hulikal and Barebail as ‘escape’ routes. Shiradi and Sampaje have been done up but are unreliable. We will take up this issue with the government again.”

    The Kanara Chamber of Commerce and Industry has also been in constant touch with the neighbouring chambers over making ghat roads more reliable and all-weather.

    Infrastructure expert Ashok Shiradi says, “There was a time in the recent history of the National Highways that heavy monsoon was used as a convenient excuse by corrupt politicians to deflect the blame that was otherwise theirs for laying third-class roads.”

    Many politicians, up till 2014, had spent crores of rupees of public money on these projects, and received huge kickbacks in return from contractors, who laid poor-quality infrastructure.

    In the process, NHAI got a bad name as tourism, especially religious tourism, in the region was severely affected.

    These two highways, NH 66 and NH 75, are the worst sufferers on this account.

    National Highway 66 runs through the coastal region connecting Kanyakumari to Panvel just outside Mumbai, while NH 75 connects Mangaluru and Vellore in Tamil Nadu.

    Absence Of Service Roads

    The Surathkal-to-Shiroor road (120 kilometres of National Highway 66) has less than 40 kilometres of service roads. Service roads have been planned for some distance in the approach to major cities and towns such as Mangaluru, Udupi and Kundapura on this stretch.

    Some fisheries connectivity roads have also been rechristened as service roads or made to act as such.

    Fisheries roads are the lifeline of the coastal districts as they facilitate the evacuation of fish caught from the Arabian sea to the markets in major cities and towns, and to Bengaluru, Kannur and Panaji.

    These catches are also transported by trucks overnight to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra for value addition.

    Considering that fisheries earns over Rs 2,400 crore per annum (only 8 months of fisheries season), both in terms of domestic and foreign exchange, fisheries roads and infrastructure should be given priority in development, feel stakeholders.

    Fisheries is the largest earner second only to the tourism sector, says Prakesh Tandel of Honnavar in Uttara Kannada district.

    “My district is the worst sufferer in terms of fisheries infrastructure in the state. Yathish Baikampady, a fisheries leader of Dakshina Kannada, compares it with the facilities in Goa and Kerala, saying, “Both neighbouring states have developed excellent fisheries infrastructure despite being smaller than Karnataka”.

    Urban-Rural Divide Still Persists

    The urban-rural divide is clearly seen throughout the 21 kilometres of National Highway in Mangaluru urban taluk, which runs from Mangaluru to Haleyangadi, while the new Mulki-Moodbidri taluk has only some urban stretches such as Mulky and Padubidri.

    The estuarine areas past Padubidri up to Muluru, the outskirts of Kaup up to Katpady, and Nittoor to Santhekatte, are places where service road stretches are missing.

    However, all the town areas have got proper service roads.

    “These are the few roads, some of them Major District Roads, some fisheries roads and others that have connectivity to National Highway 66 which are in need of development. I have personally handed over the list to the Surface Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari,” MP of Mangaluru Nalin Kumar Kateel told Swarjaya.

    Similarly, on the other side of the city, NH 75 crosses Buntwal, up to Gundya, which is now under a dispute. As many as 75 kilometres of National Highway, which was supposed to have been converted into a four-lane facility, now lies in shambles, he added.

    Kateel attributed the delay in work to the previous government of Karnataka, which had stalled the work just to prove it had powers over development.

    Similarly, things are also not good in the Kerala side of National Highway 66, where the state government there, just to appease a few groups, has not allowed acquisition of land that has been reserved for widening of the highway.

    As a result, the development of the state has been bridled with hurdles, Kateel says.

    Where Does The Tax Money Go?

    Trolls on social media have come up with another viewpoint.

    Every motorist, when he registers a new vehicle, pays a road tax of 14 per cent of the vehicle cost. For high-end cars, it goes up to 20 per cent, and according to the Lakshman Rao committee report, 20 per cent of the tax collected should be earmarked for the development and maintenance of roads — both national and state highways, Major District Roads (MDRs) and fisheries connectivity roads among others, on a 60:40 Centre-State funding pattern.

    Some people are asking why the government collects toll when there are funds and procedures in place to develop such infrastructure.

    The trolls do not stop at that. For travelling a distance of 18 kilometres from Mukka toll gate to Hejmady toll gate, one has to pay Rs 45, and further at Hejmady, one has to pay Rs. 45.

    So, for travelling 18 kilometres, the motorist would have to spend Rs 90, which is exorbitant.

    But Are They Safe Roads? No, Say Motorists

    The Baikampady-Panambur intersection is one of the worst traffic intersections. This stretch had featured prominently on the list of Nalin Kumar Kateel’s plans for road improvement. In his submission to Gadkari, Kateel informed him of the need to make port connectivity safe and smooth.

    The intersection is a six-road junction. One comes from the Mangalore side, another from the Baikampady side, another goes into the port via Meenakaliya and the fourth one exits into the industrial estate. The fifth one goes into the truck terminal, and the last one is a truncated side road which ends abruptly.

    On both sides of the ramp, heavy duty trucks with 21 wheels bring cargo to the New Mangalore Port and the industrial area, hogging the entire road. This is where things turn nasty. On both sides of the National Highway, owing to poor construction or hyper-utilisation, infrastructure has crumbled beyond recognition.

    Many attempts made to contact the NH authorities went in vain. Some major bottlenecks are as follows:

    • A similar situation exists at Trasi and Thallur passes in Kundapur taluk of Udupi district. The Gokarna Cross at Honnavar taluk has escaped this situation after the district administration took proactive steps to provide a ‘yield system’, which is a looping structure of roads.

    • The service roads between Balaipadey to Ambalpady intersection and further to Karavali junction in Udupi are critical. On both sides, the underpasses offer bottlenecks and a blind corner. Udupi police have, however, installed a traffic directing mechanism there and have saved many motorists from unsavoury situations.

    • The underpass at Surathkal, which should have provided connectivity on both sides of the highway, offers no remedy as the underpasses are just 7.5-feet-wide and are suited only for autorickshaws and two-wheelers.

    Toll Turmoil On NH 66

    The National Highway 66 stretch between Surathkal and Udupi has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Right from the year 2001, when its construction started, till today, the road is not complete. As a result, many project aberrations have been discovered by users, particularly between those plying between the two towns.

    MPs of both Udupi and Dakshina Kannada — Shobha Karandlaje and Nalin Kumar Kateel respectively — have met Nitin Gadkari separately and appraised him about the conditions. Both of them have had one common grouse:

    Why has a 302-kilometre-long highway taken 12 years to complete? Major parts of the highway’s development on NH 66 (Udupi Lok Sabha constituency) has been assigned to Udupi Tollways Private Limited, which is owned by Navayuga Infrastructure.

    Udupi Tollways is a subsidiary of the company. Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasekhara Reddy, and currently CM of AP, is the promoter of the company.

    After Reddy senior died, and a number of political tailspins hence, the company went into financial difficulties, as a result of which major parts of the 302-kilometre highway work in Udupi also suffered.

    It is sheer impropriety on part of the Central government in 2004 for issuing contracts for infrastructure development to its own frontmen.

    In this melee, one of the important flyovers at Mahaveera Circle (formerly Pumpwell circle) connecting Karnataka with Kerala took no less than 10 years to see any progress. Incidentally, even now, the project lies incomplete.

    Since 2014, when the Narendra Modi government took over, political parties blamed the NDA government and made its MP Nalin Kumar Kateel a scapegoat, all the while hiding the fact that the contract, whose terms cannot be changed now, was given during the UPA era.

    It has been 12 years since the project was awarded, but even today, the 302- kilometre Surathkal-Mazali stretch is yet to see the light of day.

    Though the 40-kilometre stretch is an incomplete four-lane facility, in many places such as Padubidri in Udupi, commuters have expressed serious apprehension over the absence of service roads on both sides of the highway.

    This is a reality in passes from Kottara to Padupanamburu, Hosabettu to Arandu and Chelyaru to Karnad in Dakshina Kannada district.

    Further into Udupi district, from Mulki to Padibidri and to Muloor, and from Kapu to Udyavar, service roads are absent.

    However, the NHAI has acquired lands in some of these stretches up to 25 feet on each side where it is not crossed by the five rivers up to Udyavara Holay.

    Out of the 40-kilometre toll road in Dakshina Kannada, only 8 kilometres has some service roads. Locals claim that these were not service roads but instead Major District Roads connecting interior areas of the two districts.

    For example, the road that branches off into Mulky town from Kolchekambla reaches the highway after a distance of 8 kilometres, and secondly, the road connecting Panambur to Baikampady was built by the New Mangalore Port as its own service road and not by NHAI on both sides.

    On the other side, the National Institute of Technology had built the service road for a distance of 4 kilometres.

    According to IRC recommendations of 1993, the four-lane National Highway must have service lanes running parallel to the entire stretch, and wherever needed, must have underbelly connectivity for users of service roads to criss-cross.

    In addition, grade separators will also have to be taken up to facilitate the movement of vehicles from service roads towards the national highways.

    “But between Surathkal and Udupi, all these features are absent. This is blocking the free movement of people from one place to another,” says Vijaykumar Shetty, leader of an anti-highway toll group at Surathkal.

    However, officials of NHAI are on the defensive, claiming that the recommendations of the IRC were not binding on interstate, national highways.

    When asked why there are no grade separators, service roads and underpasses, officials drew a blank; they were, perhaps, trying to cover their tracks.

    However, they point out that underpasses do exist opposite NITK, near Mahakali temple in Kaup, Karavali circle at Udupi and Barkur road in Brahmavar, within a distance of 70 kilometres.

    The recent anti-toll agitation at Surathkal has brought to light yet another issue.

    “What will happen to regular commuters on this road? Especially, those who have to depend on the highways for their livelihood? For example, the beedi rollers, local bakery product delivery vehicles, vegetable and fruit delivery vehicles, newspaper vans from Mangalore to Udupi and vice-versa, asks Santhosh Menezes, a businessman.

    A bakery product unit in Baikampady now uses the Baikapady-Kolnad route to arrive at Mulky, instead of the Panambur-Surathkal route. With the district administration deciding on toll for KA-19 registered vehicles at Surathkal, my operational costs have gone up,” he adds.

    The shouts of protesters against the levy of toll sting rings in the ears of motorists.

    Udupi Tollways is now flooded with questions from Udupi-registered vehicle owners asking whether they are being arm-twisted into paying the toll.

    What has also shocked people is Minister Gadkari’s open endorsement of toll collection and payment.

    They wonder whether the Central government is broke and where all the public monies meant for highway development is going.

    The NHAI officials, have as in process, gone incommunicado. Journalists covering NHAI beat complain that the engineers have always been tight lipped and are not even answering phone calls.

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