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Road to the future

A new public-private initiative seeks to address two gaps in road-building in India — standardised design and transparency in procurement.


December 22, 2014 1:02:09 am
Bangalore roads are so wretched that helpless residents can only make light of the misery by creating pothole-counting face-offs and crater-measuring contests. Bangalore roads are so wretched that helpless residents can only make light of the misery by creating pothole-counting face-offs and crater-measuring contests.

By: Saritha Rai

India’s technology hub, Bangalore, has an abundance of charms but its roads and traffic are not among them. The roads are narrow and the network woefully scanty, despite the fast-paced growth and exploding vehicle population in this city of 10 million. Bangalore’s vehicle count is estimated at four million vehicles currently, with about 1,000 vehicles added daily. Traffic is chaotic, footpaths are non-existent or broken, drains overflow and many streets have an overhanging mass of tangled phone and power lines. The roads are so wretched that helpless residents can only make light of the misery by creating pothole-counting face-offs and crater-measuring contests.

Even as its clogged, pavement-less thoroughfares are whittling away at Bangalore’s branding as a global technology centre, some hope has arrived in the form of a radical new project that could update the streets to a global standard. The project is a public-private initiative called TenderSure (Specifications for Urban Road Execution), where urban experts have joined hands with officials to upgrade a total of 45 of the city’s most important roads, creating footpaths, cycling tracks and proper parking zones, and paying attention to details like tree pits and street furniture. The private partner is the Bangalore City Connect Foundation — an alliance of the urban citizenship NGO Janaagraha, the CII and technology entrepreneurs Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Kris Gopalakrishnan — whose task is to design and plan while the government selects the contractor and funds the project.

The Rs 300-crore project intends to address Bangalore’s chaotic traffic conditions as well as fix potholes, broken footpaths and the tangled cable mass. It is admittedly expensive, but aims to provide a methodical and disciplined way to address the design, procurement and execution of the city’s roads. For instance, it mandates that water, sewage, power, optic fibre cable, gas and storm water drains are integrated into the design. It prioritises the safety and comfort of pedestrians and cyclists in a city that averages one pedestrian fatality every single day.

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Three prominent roads being upgraded in the first phase of TenderSure should be ready by mid-2015. “These are capital intensive, yes, but they are also low on maintenance, they will bring down repair costs and keep life cycle costs low,” said V. Ravichandar, an urban affairs specialist who is part of TenderSure.

How did Bangalore’s roads come to this pass? Through a deadly combination of a lack of expertise, decades of neglect in planning, as well as rampant corruption. Sample this: Last year, at a meeting of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the metropolitan authority, corporator N.R. Ramesh announced that he had documents to prove that the BBMP had spent Rs 17,802 crore on the construction and repair of the city roads in the past 10 years. “Where has all the money gone?” he asked. Earlier this year, the leader of the opposition in the state legislative assembly, Jagadish Shettar of the BJP, alleged that corruption was rampant in the design, execution and maintenance of roads. It has become a “percentage” business where contracts are allotted based on the percentage of cuts to various parties leading to low quality roads, he said. Shettar, a former chief minister, should know.

TenderSure’s process of road-building is far-reaching in more ways than one. It addresses the two gaps in road-building in India — standardised design specifications and transparency in procurement. It allows public scrutiny of road contracts. It allows coordination between various utility agencies so that the roads, once laid, are not dug up or tampered with. TenderSure is about building a good road once by building it right. Its blueprints are replicable.

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Bangalore is not the first to put new thinking and expertise into road projects. In neighbouring Chennai, its corporation has brought in a new transport policy that will help create a network of footpaths, cycling paths and walkways by 2018 to spur residents to walk or cycle. It wants to spend 60 per cent of its transport budget to facilitate non-motorised transport, as against the Indian norm of spending less than 5 per cent on this. In 2010, New Delhi laid out guiding principles for pedestrian-friendly road-building when it was found that over a third of the capital’s roads had no footpaths at all and 14 per cent of vehicle-owning Delhi occupied nearly all the road space. But the glitch in every city has been in execution.

In Bangalore, the three TenderSure roads nearing completion will do away with the twice-yearly repair, the main source of corruption and leakages, said Ravichandar.

Bangalore has 13,000 km and TenderSure is barely scratching the surface. But not everybody is happy with the way things are turning out. Corporators accuse TenderSure of subverting processes and clandestinely privatising roads. Some bureaucrats and the police accuse project leaders of not consulting all agencies and say that the specs will substantially reduce the carriageway for motorists and further clog the roads. These could be the rumblings of discontent among those who see TenderSure as the death knell for massive corruption in road works. The “system” could be waiting to kill TenderSure.

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But if Bangalore’s residents enthusiastically use the 12 stretches of TenderSure roads to drive in uniform two-lane traffic and walk, bike and window shop, there is a good chance that the project will be a “test lab success” whose standards will set the paradigm for future road works. If not, it will be business as usual. Roads will continue to be laid and relaid while money will leak out and line the pockets of corrupt politicians and officials.

saritha.rai@expressindia.com

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First published on: 22-12-2014 at 01:02:09 am
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