Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Paving a Road to Hell: Highways, Safety, Life and the Indian Republic

Addressing the Goan public on Republic Day, one of the many bits of paternal advice that the Governor of our State chose to impart was with regards to roads. He lamented that there were over 300 young deaths on the roads every year. The widening of roads he therefore argued, (he meant the controversial highway expansion project) was necessary to take care of the ever growing vehicular traffic and to contain incidents of road mishaps.

It’s a wonder that the Goan public are not already tired of the truckloads of gratuitous advice that they get from all quarters. These various patriarchs seemed convinced that the Goan public is like some misguided barque of youth that need to be guided into calm and responsible waters. Fortunately for this Goan public however, a good amount of their actions are actually sensible, far-sighted, and it is these patriarchs who would be better served by wider reading.

The cause for deaths on Goan roads is not their narrow width. On the contrary, if the narrow roads contribute to anything, it is to limit the number of deaths one would encounter if the roads were any wider. It is a rather simple fact of physics that the faster one’s vehicle is moving, the greater the impact and the greater the extent of injuries. Narrow roads, and the fact of people and animals moving across them, serve to slow down traffic and make these roads people and life-friendly. Wider highways on the other hands are veritable death-traps. They allow for faster movement, and when in such fast moving vehicles, it makes more sense to ram into the animal or vehicle that makes the mistake of being in your path, than swerving to try and avoid this obstruction. You can swerve to avoid an accident best when traveling at a slower pace. As inconvenient as it may be then, the increasing number of vehicles on Goan (and Indian) roads probably works to our advantage, by reducing speed and saving lives. If there is a reason for the number of deaths on Goan roads, then it must be credited to the high speeds at which we attempt to travel. Blame this on the increasing capacities of vehicles and the misguided sense of style and liberation we get from being in or on fast vehicles. And so sorry Mr. Governor, but you need to marshal better facts, if you are to convince this unruly, troublesome Goan public that they should not be opposing the highway expansion project.

While on the subject of speed, I was recently made aware of the reasons for the low speed limits on bridges; 40 in the case of the Mandovi and 30 in the case of the Zuari. It turns out that if you have an unceasing flow of traffic coursing at high speeds over the bridges the bridge too starts to sway with the speed of the traffic. This eventually leads to stress that the structure has not been designed to deal with and sooner or later one winds up with rather catastrophic end to the bridge. The speed limit is obviously there for a purpose. Speed however is something that we seem to take as a fundamental right and it is hard to drive on either of these bridges without getting some speed-crazy maniac trying to overtake you or honk the living daylights out of you.

To return to the issue of highways though, what we need to recognize is that highways are not built primarily for local people to traverse through the State, but for larger vehicles – commercial carriers- to get to point A to point B as fast as possible. This is not to make a nativist argument, but to point out that this process is not without impact on the populations that fall on the route of these super-highways. Thus highways may connect people, but they also separate them. They divide villages into two portions and to a large extent prevent normal communication between these two segments of the village. No longer is it possible for a person to walk across the road to visit the shop or chapel or temple across the road. Underpasses are prone to flooding, overhead bridges inconvenient for the physically challenged and the infirm, and they are often spaced too far apart to be convenient for a pedestrian. Not only do highways separate, they also evict persons. Entire lifetimes that were spent building a home, or tending to an orchard are destroyed as quickly as you can ‘land-grab scam’.

The kind of super-highways that the Goan public is being pushed to accept makes sense in the vast unpopulated spaces of the United States. They make sense in places where people have been forced to stop walking and get into vehicles for every single requirement. This has ofcourse come with its own curse of social anomie and high death rates on highways. Highways also invariably come with undemocratic forms of government. It is all part of a package deal.

For these and other reasons, it is therefore strange that the Governor chose to urge Goan members of the Indian Republic to acquiesce to highways on Republic Day…but of late, most strange are the logics of the Indian Republic.

(A version of this blog was first published in the Gomantak Times 2 Feb 2011)


Gia said...

In a recent BBC One Planet programme, Danish architect Jan Gehl made the point that we are apparently planning cities 'to make the cars happy and not the people' and that things have now come to a stage where the pedestrians have to ask permission from the vehicles before crossing the street (a reference to the practice of installing request-crossing lights) though it's a moot point whether this is relevant to us.
The programme podcast is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00d1cg9/One_Planet_Cities_for_people_old_trees_and_missing_billions/

Jason said...

Thank you Gia...I think both you and Jan Gehl are spot on...

In India (and other parts of the world with explicit commitment to a rigidly hierarchical order) this privileging of the automobile overlaps with the disdain for the non-elite. This makes the privileging of the automobile that much more obnoxious dont you think?

KIXMET said...

Please correct me if I am wrong, but I have a couple of doubts.

1)Do you have documentary evidence to substantiate your thesis about narrower roads leading to fewer accidents.

2)Public transport(e.g.buses) actually make use of highways too. As someone who exclusively travels by bus I feel that highway development is imperative improved public transport which is both safer and environmentally sound.