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Road Warriors

A freeway to hell or heaven, Malayalees can't decide

Road Warriors
Road Warriors
In controversy-ridden Kerala, a proposal to build a north-south expressway has kicked off yet another one. Those who support the highway plan hail it as a worthy futuristic "must-have". Its opponents, though, say it will "vivisect" God’s Own Country. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. With three airports dotting the narrow stretch of Kerala’s coastline and a vehicle population around the 2.5-million mark, something has to be done. Add to this the fast expanding trans-shipment container terminal at Kochi and the fact that MNCs like car major BMW are planning to set up shop here, the expressway looks a viable alternative to the virtual death traps the state depends on now.

The new proposal, mooted by the Roads and Bridges Development Corporation of Kerala (RBDCK), is a 507-km access-controlled high-speed corridor linking the north and south of the state. This is expected to shorten journey time from end-to-end to 5 hours instead of the 15-20 now. The pro-Left Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad though isn’t impressed, calling it " anti-environment and a case of lopsided development". The pro-Jamaat Islamia Solidarity Youth Movement activists too are out on the road, flexing muscles at proponents of "the diabolic highway that will benefit the rich at the expense of the poor".

But the authorities say Kerala will benefit from the project since in the total project cost of Rs 6,400 crore, expenditure on all inputs except steel and miscellaneous materials will be ploughed back into the state’s economy. This would kickstart a chain of business activity, leaving a positive multiplier effect on the economy. The new highway will have 19 interchanges, 343 underpasses, 68 overpasses and 565 pedestrian and cattle-passes, with a crossing at every 500 metres on an average. They also stress that the highway alignment has been done in such a way that it will not disturb reserve forests, wildlife sanctuaries and other environmentally sensitive areas. PWD minister M.K. Muneer, like his predecessor P.J. Joseph in the CPI(M)-led E.K. Nayanar cabinet, says the highway is "inevitable". Just that the Left Democratic Front is now ambivalent.

It was on June 24 this year that the government set up a special purpose vehicle company—Kerala High Speed Corridor Company Limited—to develop the project. Kerala’s contribution is Rs 10 crore to the corpus for 50 per cent share of the company with partner, Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd (IL&FS), Mumbai, holding an equal share. The company will in turn out hand out project contracts.

Those opposed to the new expressway are concerned it will displace a sizeable population. The government’s own estimate of around Rs 1,000 crore to resettle people proves this. There are other objections too. Prof R.V.G. Menon, a leading light of the Shastra Sahitya Parishad, says the best alternative would have been to develop existing national highways with intermittent town bypasses and even 6-laning wherever necessary. As he puts it, what Kerala requires is a mass rapid transport system on rails. Also, with the astronomical costs involved, will the common man be able to afford the expressway?

Menon also feels the comparisons given regarding land acquisition costs aren’t realistic since the existing national highways have sufficient land for a 60-m carriageway. "We need to know the assumptions and methodology behind the current studies to make a proper assessment," he says. Muneer does agree that ideally rail transport would be a better alternative to road transport. But for now, he’s more concerned about the growing mismatch between vehicle availability and road infrastructure. Traffic density on the arterial NH-47 is in the range of 65,000 pcus (passenger car units), average speed attained a paltry 39 kph. For NH-17, it’s nearly 44,000 pcu and 48 kph respectively.Some more stats: Kerala has eight highways totalling 1,520 km with a combined road length of 1,37,678 km.

According to projections, traffic volume levels are likely to exceed capacity by nearly three times in a decade and about six times in another 20 years. Ten per cent of accidents reported in the country take place in Kerala every year. In a strange twist of logic, both sides are basing their expressway arguments on this.

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