Jaipur, India – India lives on extremes. A country chasing $5 trillion economy is speeding too high on roads, going a sure way to fatality. Road accidents and deaths in India are highest in the world. It’s not bumps of rough roads or speed breakers but jerks from the potholes which are real menace in this peninsular region. Highways ministry of India had launched an innovative program on All India Radio broadcasting engaging stories on highway road safety and traffic rules. Popularity of such shows underlines need for more participatory communication and also conveys concern of the government, which has also enforced new Motor Vehicle Act last year with heavy penalties on over-speeding and unruly driving. But, this is just one part of solution. Improving quality and technique of road construction and repairing potholes quickly not just for smooth ride but also for roads to be porous enough to absorb water and replenish the soil below is a bigger challenge. Governments can’t afford to ignore environmental concerns anymore when sustainability, urban infrastructure development and healthy human life are interdependent goals.
One aspect of the problem is also global water crisis and climate change threatening very existence of life on the planet. On the other hand, globally more than 1.3 million people die in road accidents every year which is man-made crisis. We need to understand the linkage of both environment and safety aspects of it. Pothole-crimes remain unaccounted and unpunished in India and people like Manoj Wadhwa, who lost his 3 year toddler in an accident because of pothole, have been fighting legally against insensitive and non-responsive system since past five years now. While, in another case, an Indian court offered compensation to a pregnant mother, who lost her unborn baby because of falling in a pothole, counting it a case of unborn baby’s right to take birth taken away. But, Indian roads remain as unsafe and as suffocated environmentally. They can’t breathe and water logging during rains is a normal sight on Indian roads which become even more dangerous in this season with open potholes and drainages.
Like Manoj, one engineer is also refusing to give up on Indian killer roads. An Octogenarian passionate Indian Prof Prithvi Kandhal is Associate Director Emeritus to National Centre of Asphalt Technology (NCAT), Auburn University, Alabama, which is largest asphalt (bitumen) road technology centre in the world. Having settled in India now, he has launched a solo civic drive advocating solution to three separate, yet related issues. One is faulty road construction technique causing premature road deterioration; another is ignorance about all-weather good pothole patching mix for quick repair; and yet another is lack of knowledge about porous asphalt for rainwater harvesting in urban areas. As he perseveres with his efforts to write to officials, civil engineers, giving presentations to engineers’ associations, development authorities and Indian ministries impressing upon them to tweak the current methods of road construction, pothole repair and water harvesting he realizes the bureaucratic inertia in the system. He has already demonstrated field performance and suitability of his formula for extreme conditions in India. Though, everyone appreciates his ideas but none is forthcoming and excited to put these patent-free techniques into practice and seek his voluntary assistance.
As per an assessment the roads here last not beyond three years. Sub-standard material and poor construction comes to light only after tragedy happens and scientific appropriateness of the construction material and methods is never questioned. The technologies that were developed by Franklin Institute of Pennsylvania and Prof Prithvi when he was working as Chief Bitumen Road Engineer in 1980 has been in use now in most of the American states and many other countries. California alone has built 150 projects using this technique mainly to solve ‘Storm Water Management’ issue successfully. This technique has also been recognized as Outstanding Engineering by American Society of Civil Engineers. We just need to build an understanding on how it can be cost effective, life-saving and environment friendly in Indian context.
Recently, in a personal meeting with central rural development minister of India Prof Prithvi has suggested to phase out premix carpet (PMC) in time bound manner thus saving over 100 billion Indian Rupees per year. His lectures and correspondence with various top technical bodies and officials had resulted in Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) changing the grading technique of key construction material asphalt (bitumen) saving the roads from melting in high heat. Encouraged by this systemic change, he is relentlessly trying to convince the state and Union governments of India to take a giant leap for better-safer-climate resilient roads. Solution to ground water depletion also rests with this technology and newly formed water ministry of India (Jal-Shakti Mantralaya) must find ways to put it to massive use. Union water minister of India Gajendra Singh Shekhawat was apparently impressed with his contention about using porous asphalt allowing 95 % rainwater to seep in through 77 mm asphalt layer and underlying open graded stone bed of 225 mm width. These stone layers also filter the rainwater thus ensuring clean groundwater. Prof Prithvi has also showcased a model parking lot at one of India’s cleanest railway stations addressing the issue of plunging water table under the ground and proposes a consolidated plan to construct parking lots and integrate water harvesting systems in adjoining buildings to save extra cost of water recharge.
Tireless campaign and restless soul together have power to nudge Indian systems as experts with knowledge treasure wait for their turn to give back to society and nation. Appreciating pragmatic scientific approaches for nation building and valuing people with global work experience and high credentials as part of our political culture will only rebuild our faith in good governance. Best brains must be heard and assured of their chance to contribute for better-brighter India. Then, road to safety shall not remain longer.