The consensus on national highways, hurriedly worked out by the ruling Left Democratic Front and the opposition United Democratic Front barely two months ago, has collapsed.
Strident voices for repudiation of the agreement to restrict road width to 30 metres and abandonment of the BOT (build, operate, transfer) formula are now being raised by leaders on both sides of the political divide.
The consensus was reached at an all-party meeting called by Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan in the wake of protests all along the major highways against acquiring land to increase road width to 45 metres.
Nine national highways run through the state. Together they account for 1,542km. The longest of them is NH17, which runs from Panvel in Maharashtra to Edappalli, near Kochi. About 420km of it lie in the state. About 417km of NH47, which links the Tamil Nadu towns of Salem and Kanyakumari, also lie in the state.
While national highways in other states were widened during the past two decades in keeping with the revised standards set by the Central government, Kerala could not do so for two reasons. One was the state administration’s reservations over some aspects of the Central policy. The other was the difficulty in acquiring land in view of strong opposition from the public.
The revised Central specifications fixed the width of the four-lane national highway at 60 metres. The state government urged the Centre to reduce the width to 30 metres in Kerala considering the heavy density of population. The Centre agreed to reduce the width to 45 metres.
Two months after the present LDF government took office in 2006 the government of India agreed to develop 868 kilometres of national highways in the state at a cost of Rs50 billion. However, the project could not be taken up because of the LDF’s reservations about the BOT formula. By the time LDF changed its mind, opposition to land acquisition became almost insurmountable.
On the basis of the decision taken at the all-party meeting, the chief minister led a delegation, which also included the Leader of the Opposition, to the Prime Minister in April and made a fresh plea to fix the road width at 30 metres.
When reports from New Delhi suggested that the Centre was not inclined to accept the request, Public Works Minister Jose Thettayil, who belongs to the breakaway Kerala Congress faction, broke ranks and came out against the consensus on 30-metre width.
Communist Party of India-Marxist state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan followed up with a suggestion that another all-party meeting be held to look at the matter afresh.
Since then a number of trade and civic organisations have come out opposing the move to reduce the width. Most of them want the government to stick to the figure of 45 metres, which was previously decided upon. Some want the state to fall in line with the national standard and go in for 60-metre wide highways.
Those favouring wider highways argue that there will be a bottleneck if road width in the state is fixed at 30 metres. They cite the state’s high vehicle population and the increasing incidence of road accidents to reinforce their demand.
In the eight years from 2001 to 2009, the number of vehicles in the state rose from 2.45 million to 4.88 million. However, multiplicity of vehicles rather than their number appears to be the major problem. Of the vehicles on the road, 2.92 million are scooters and motorcycles.
State Crime Records Bureau statistics show that poor driving standard is the main cause of road accidents. It attributed as many as 25,899 of 26,371 road accidents reported in 2009 to “fault of driver of motor vehicle”.
The need to facilitate fast vehicular traffic on the highways is not in doubt. Some groups agitating against land acquisition have offered a formula to end the impasse. This envisages construction of four lanes in 30 metres in the land already available with the government and construction of four more lanes on an elevated highway to be built by erecting pillars.
An elevated highway will, of course, involve higher construction costs. However, since there is no need to uproot people there will be saving in rehabilitation expenses. Any gap still left can be covered by collecting toll from users of the elevated highway. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 7, 2010