Friday, November 04, 2016

Why do our roads and cities continue to fail us?

In August 2015, we landed in Taiwan a day after Category-5 Super Typhoon Soudelor made a landfall with destructive winds reaching 215 km/h, with torrential rains causing widespread damage and disruptions, accumulating 632 mm of rain in 12 hours, where a record-breaking 5 million households lost power on the island, and yet the roads were intact, and the city came back to life within a day.  Looking at how well the city looked and functioned, we couldn’t believe that they had experienced such a powerful typhoon the day before. 

In September 2016, Hyderabad city faced a 24-hour long rain fall from the active south-west monsoon, accumulating 164 mm of rain, but that brought the city to a standstill, resulting in inundation of several localities, breaching of drainage system, with many of the roads completely damaged, causing hours of traffic jams across the city.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, storms, flash floods - these are some of the extreme but routine natural weather conditions that hit most parts of the world.  Developed countries tend to face them as much as any other country.  And yet, the roads in those countries don’t get damaged the way Indian roads take a hit after a single large rain.  Those cities don’t get inundated and don't come to a grinding halt so easily as Indian cities do. 

Why is that?

Before answering that question, let’s make another observation. Why do the roads on Outer Ring Road, or the airport tarmac of Hyderabad, withstand the same rain, while the roads of urban Hyderabad get potholes and get eroded with one single rain? Why some parts of the city, especially the older sections, are not inundated, while the newer sections are submerged?

Here we need to understand one crucial point - it’s NOT just because of maintenance, but it is because of the way they were built.  It’s NOT because of tropical climate, or because of monsoons, or because of global warming.  It’s got to do with the fundamentals of how we build them in the first place. 

Example 1: Podium at KU, Warangal

I grew up in Warangal in Kakatiya University campus, where we played on a podium that was built in mid-70s.  For nearly three decades this podium withstood all kinds of rain, sun and wind.  It remained intact even after repeated use.  In mid 2000s, it was decided to increase the size of this podium. A new construction extended the podium on three sides.  Within 6 months, the new construction began to crack and crumble.  The tiles broke into pieces and jutted out its sharp edges, the plaster fell off the whole section, and if you walked to inspect, you could clearly delineate the older section from the newer section – the older sections still remained intact while the newer section was completely broke.

How did this happen, in this country, that methods of construction deteriorated over a period of time, while the technology and quality of materials actually improved in the last thirty years? 

Are we one of those unique countries on the planet who have actually reversed the arrow of progress?

Example 2: Kagdaspura in Bangalore

Bangalore city has some really nice layouts that were made in 70s and 80s.  Even today these layouts continue to have nice parks, wide roads, and traffic doesnt't come to a halt.  And most interestingly, these colonies don’t get clogged during heavy rains. 

In the last 10 years a new layout came out – called Kagdaspura.  When it was decided to include this village into the city municipality under urban planning, there was a huge debate and furore from the residents.  The decision to develop it by Bangalore Development Authority was turned down through intense lobbying efforts of the people who held these lands. The land was now sold by individual owners without any planning.  The small lanes of the erstwhile village became the arteries of the new city.  The result is one of the ignominious experiments of how collective greed combined with short-sightedness could become a debilitating mess for modern cities of India.  The roads turned out to be crooked and narrow, and the new locality doesn’t have sewage system or the gutters.  One particularly important road, which connected few lakhs of residents to the rest of the city, is so narrow that only one truck could go either way at a time.  Every day in the morning, entire traffic comes to a grinding halt and it moves at snail pace.  And when it rains the entire place is submerged in water.

Here we need to acknowledge something profound.  It is not because we don’t know how to build better cities that failed us, but it is because we decided succumb to a Funny Form of Democracy that we created such a mess for ourselves.  This Funny Form of Democracy comes from our inability to understand the full extent of our constitutional democracy – wherein we use citizen forums to pander to a collective greed while flouting the laws and disavowing the best practises.  It is the form of democracy where we believe a group’s demands are right even when it tramples the rights of the others to lead a decent life.  It is this form where the collective greed of the majority overwhelms the collective good of the society.   [Can we all vote and use our majority to repeal all the laws?]

Bangalore is now a crumbling city, with worst traffic, frequent inundation and damaged roads after each rainfall.  Interestingly, Karnataka Government had earlier come up with an act to regularize illegal constructions through acceptance of a small payment – and it was aptly called Akrama Sakrama (which literally means ‘Legalize the Illegal’). 

Example 3: Indian Software Services

In 2003, I came back to India after living in US for about nine years – it was my first job in India, and first time in a software services company.   In the division that I worked as System Architect, there was a software module that consistently failed – it was listed as ‘critical’ for over three years. Because that software module produced so many problems continuously, the five engineers who worked on it were always in fire-fighting mode.  Since most others didn’t understand the complexity, these engineers were treated with utmost respect, considered ‘most valuable’.  They were paraded as prized fighters.  

When I was given the task to oversee the solution to one of the problems in that software module, I hit upon a realization – I summarized it as follows to the team:  There is a man who keeps falling, and each time he falls, he gets hurt.  What you are doing is fixing the external bruises and the cuts, with band aids and bandages.  Each time he falls, you add another layer of bandage.  Now the bandage itself has grown so thick that it is somehow acting as a crutch for him to walk.  But you have never fixed the real problem.  The real problem is that the patient keeps falling because of the broken bone, and it has never been fixed.

When the team was confronted with the reality that they need to fix the basic architecture of the software, they just balked.  They were in a state of denial.  They thought they didn’t have authority to make a design change, and didn’t want to admit it needed a design change. Here is another syndrome – Indian software services syndrome in action.  The team was refusing to see the stark reality – a change in the design.  And there was an ulterior motive for the management to continue this kind of continuously fixing the software.  Because it perpetuated their revenues.  It served a business interest. If it was fixed permanently then the team of 5 was not needed, and they would get less money.

This is exactly what is happening to our Indian roads.  We are not fixing the actual problem, because it is hard work, and also because not fixing it serves a business interest. Nobody wants to fix the problem which could involve a new architecture or new design.  Instead, each time a rain washes off our roads, we lazily put another layer (like the band aid).  This serves the interest of certain sections.  Those who fix the roads continuously make money, and those who are in the thick of action are always considered important. 

What is the problem with us in India?

It is clear that our roads are not designed properly.  Though the city planning is a well-understood science and technology in the world, even the most basic principles are not implemented in India.  We built better roads and better cities in 1970s and 1980s than now.  While most countries in the world are adopting better engineering techniques, clearly our methods are deteriorating.  How is it possible?

As a country, we are suffering from an insanely debilitating malaise that is caused by a combination of collective greed and short-sightedness.  We have created a political, bureaucratic and societal system which doesn’t allow us to promote excellence in engineering, design or architecture of our roads and cities.  Our short-sighted approach doesn’t allow us to solve the architectural problems, and our collective greed perpetuates these problems because of vested interests. 

This is our undoing.   As a society, we could collapse.

Cure 1: Architecture fix in the software module

Going back to the problem with the software module.  Back then, I had recently come back from US, and was enjoying the experience of being back in India.  In fact, I went to office daily telling myself that I am going to be fired that day.  That gave me immense courage to speak up, face any authority, and propose solutions – because I didn’t fear for my job.

I took the responsibility of redesigning the architecture, to fix the problem once and for all.  I spoke to client, got two engineers allocated, and we made the required changes and fixed the architecture in six months.  Bugs reported from that software module reduced drastically.  And after a year that module was no longer featured as the hot item.  In fact, nobody talked about it.  Only one person was assigned to maintain it, that too with half of his time.

So, what is the solution?

‘It's the Fundamentals, Stupid!’

Right now, our roads are built with a technology that must be more than 100 years old.  Our roads have no conduits, no gutters, and no drains.   Any road in the Indian city would not be more than 10 - 15 cm in depth.  

We have no choice, but go back to the fundamentals of engineering!  We need to build our roads as per actual engineering requirements.  

Belgium roads follow this rule: The new pavement is a 23-cm CRC slab over 5-cm of bituminous interlayer, 25-cm of cement-treated granulated asphalt rubble, and 15-cm of granulated lean concrete rubble.

This is how a concrete road is built in Germany (90 cm depth).

This is Belgium’s first concrete overlay even after 45 years in service.

Take a look at this video, where they build a tunnel under a highway over one weekend in Netherlands. 

Though it is clear that we need to embrace technology and engineering to solve our problems, we are in fact moving away from that – a dangerous sign.

Way forward

We need to say, Enough is Enough (in fact, that could be our slogan).  Enough of this collective greed, enough of short-sightedness, enough of inferior road building, enough of unplanned city making.   Enough of this incompetency!

We need to plan for future, and stop this short-sightedness that has been plaguing us.  Instead of maintaining the road every 6 months, thereby spending thousands of crores of rupees over many years, we need to heavily invest our monies once and build roads that last more than forty years. 

We need to combat the collective greed which creeps under us as a Funny Form of Democracy.  What we need is political leadership which says, ‘I am gonna fix it’, and then go about really fixing it in spite of antagonizing the large clout of contractors who benefit from such continuous road-laying, and it needs to stem the corruption that feeds the government offices to continue the same practise. 

And what we need in India is to have more experienced engineers to be taken into urban planning- and they need to be at the helm of affairs, not just in supporting roles, so that we do it the right way.

1 comment:

  1. Sujai, you must also seek the re-tarring of roads and increasing the height of the road in relation to properties around. We read some houses go under literally after a rain because the government officials do not think it fit to re-dig and melt the tar and add new tar to bind and not change the relationship of road to other properties like in US. every time the median gets submerged after new layer and they build a higher median! This must stop


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