Ziraat Times Team
Sometime in the 19th century, Jammu & Kashmir’s Dogra Maharaja rulers started building what was then known as the Banihal Cart (BC) Road, as an alternative road linkage between Srinagar and Jammu. Before that, it was known to be a mere mountain track used by local people to traverse their horse carts. A journey between Jammu and Srinagar then would take about five days then.
Previously, the Dogra rulers are known to normally travel to Srinagar from Jammu via Sialkot and Rawalpindi.
In the post-1947 era, the road saw many improvements, but the safety standards and the carrying capacity have not been able to keep pace with the rise in traffic and geological degradation along the mountainous terrain.
It is 21st century today. Today, Srinagar-Jammu highway, which has been designated as National Highway, is unarguably, one of the worst, and even possibly worst, highways of the world.
Braving shooting stones, landslides and biting cold, about 3000 vehicles, carrying at least 20,000 men, women and children, were stranded between the highly dangerous Banihal and Ramban stretch of the road for about 16 hours on 19th December, 2018. It was no unusual event. Such gridlocks are a new normal on the road. Such uncertainty has devastated the supply chain for about 10 million people dependent on the logistics through this road. Worse, it has contributed in aggravating the acute imports dependence of the state as well.
With the closure of the erstwhile Jhelum Valley and Mughal Roads in the post-1947 era, this road became the lifeline for about 10 million people living in Kashmir and Ladakh provinces and parts of Jammu province. Administered by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) for several decades, the road has witnessed several disasters, resulting in deaths of travellers and destruction of goods and property.
After decades of misery and suffering endured by about nine million people, the project of expansion by four-laning of the highway from Jammu to Srinagar was approved in 2011. In 2010, its earlier nomenclature of NH 1A was renumbered as NH 44.
The project work was allotted to Hyderabad-based construction company Ramky Infrastructure by National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). The project was initially targeted to be completed in 2014 but it missed its targeted deadline. Worse, with 2018 almost over, the highway expansion work is unlikely to be completed by even 2020.
What has compounded the transport mess on the road is the simultaneous expansion work on the road and the construction work on the Udhampur-Banihal railway line, running almost parallel to this road.
With landslides becoming a regular feature along the under-construction road, now questions are being raised whether the basic techniques used in the road expansion are outdated, and whether the massive disruption happening to the mountain slopes would ever make the road stable.
Although, currently, work on the Udhampur-Chenani segment is going on considerable pace, work on the most critical Ramban-Banihal segment is dogged by serious delays and challenges.
Companies building the road are said to be facing challenges in mobilising finance, because the revenue generation projection from this highway is said to have been impacted due to the parallel construction of the railway line, expected to eat up significant chunk of the revenue-worthy traffic.
What is the Expansion Project all about?
This Jammu-Srinagar road expansion project is part of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRT&H) ambitious plan of the development of the North-South Corridor connecting Srinagar to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu.
The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has been entrusted with implementation of this development project. NHAI have appointed the Louis Berger Group, Inc., USA, in Joint Venture with LRP Consultants, India and in association with L&T Ramboll, India, had been appointed as Project Preparation Consultants for Feasibility Study and DPR for the 4-Laning of the project.
The project road contract package Construction of 4 lane divided carriageway from Udhampur to Banihal (km 66 to km 188) of NH-44 is divided in to 5 packages. The start of the first package is from km 67 (Udhampur) where the existing Udhampur bypass joins NH-44 and it ends at Chinani.
Banihal-Udhampur stretch: The Horror Corridor
The project road under this contract starts from km Stone 67 at Udhampur bypass Junctions and ends at km Stone 188 at Banihal. This is the zone which is witnessing considerable destabilisation and traffic jams.
What is being done with the unstable slopes?
The new 4-lane road is being created mostly by cutting into the hill and thereby disturbing natural stability of slopes. Watercourses along the slopes are causing heavy erosion affecting road stability. Soil movement along slopes tend to disturb the road formation.
All this is leading to frequent disruptions in traffic on the road.
Landslide prone areas:
The landslides reguarly happen mainly at Panthyal, Ramsoo, Anokhifal, Nashri, Maroog, Battery Cheshma, Kheri along the Bichleri stream in Ramban district and Udhampur district. Bichleri joins Chenab downstream Ramban.
Presently, there are dozens of places between Ramban to Banihal and Udhampur to Ramban where digging work is on.
Instead of taking up digging work in a phased and planned manner, the digging work seems to be happening in a haphazard manner. There are absolutely no safety signs being displayed anywhere on the road. There are no early warning systems in place.
For travellers on the road there is no way to ascertain if it is safe to travel on the road or not. The communications methods used by the Traffic Department and its ill-equipped personnel are primitive in nature.
Is something being done for the road maintenance until the road is complete?
On September 22, 2018, Amit Kumar Ghosh, the Joint Secretary, Highways, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways reviewed the physical and financial progress of the NH44.
Mr. Ghosh had directed the district administrations and construction companies to remove the bottlenecks and ensure proper traffic management. He had also directed the construction companies for proper maintenance and management of National Highway stretch from Nashri to Banihal so that transportation of vehicles does not get obstructed.
Perhaps, little or nothing is being done by Traffic Departments in jammu and Kashmir provinces and the construction companies in this regard.
Will the techniques being used ever make the road stable?
Expert engineers Ziraat Times spoke to say that the fundamental horizontal geometry of the road is generally poor, consisting of about 811 curves along the road length of 126 km.
According to the experts, almost 50 % of the curves on the road have a radius less than 50 m. Even the “straight” lines in between are not straight, but are having nicks and turns. That all means that the fundamental alignment being followed in the new road construction will have in-built flaws.
ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT BUDGET: How is that being spent
The environmental budget for the various environmental management measures proposed for construction and operation of the expanded road has been workout to Rs.199.54 Crore. Little is known about how that money is being utilised.
What kind of traffic is impacted on the road?
Of all the passenger trips observed on the road, around 6% of the total passenger are internal i.e. between Udhampur and Banihal. About 26% of trips are either originating or destinating in the study corridor. Remaining 68% trips are external to external, meaning mostly between Srinagar and Jammu.
In terms of Goods Vehicles, feasibility studies done for the road indicate that on an average 89 % of the Goods Vehicles are through traffic. Major traffic generating zones are Srinagar and Jammu. The traffic moving from Banihal to Udhampur is predominantly carrying apples.
It is this traffic that is significantly and negatively impacted.
Traffic Management Plan During Construction Phase: Has it Been Adhered to?
Before the commencement of construction activities, an overall traffic management plan and programme for the scheduled construction and/or operations and maintenance activities were planned. The plan included:
The maximum two lane carriageway would be utilized to the maximum extent possible;
At major intersections / junctions all traffic turning movements would be allowed at all times;
Lane closer would not be adopted for two lane road traffic during construction works, by providing alternative route or diversion;
The two lane traffic would be adequately controlled by signing and flagmen;
The activity of renewal or strengthening for two lane road would not be carried out in a continuous length of more than 2.0km in rural section and 1.0km in urban section and traffic would be adequately controlled by signing and flagmen;
Traffic speed through the construction zone would be reduced to 20-30km per hour for two lane road by designing speed bumps and warning signs;
Adequate advance warning and information signs would be incorporated in the traffic management plan I accordance with IRC / MORT&H Standards and Specifications;
The contractor would provide, erect, maintain, reposition, cover, uncover and remove traffic signs as required in respect of works on the project site;
Adequate safety during night time would be signs at important locations;
People who Ziraat Times spoke to said that few of these plans are being adhered to.
Is central government taking this situation seriously?
On September 26, 2018 Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired the 29th interaction through PRAGATI with Union Secretaries of various Ministries and Chief Secretaries of States. Chief Secretary, J&K, B V R Subrahmanyam also participated in the video conference.
In regard to four lanning of Udhampur- Chanani and Nashri-Ramban section of the NH-44 in J&K, Prime Minister was informed that the project is 43 km in length and 46% physical progress has already been achieved and there are no issues pending with the State Government. The road stretch will be completed by December, 2019.
No mention of the Banihal-Nashri segment is on record.
WHAT EXPERTS SAY
Abdul Majid Butt (Eminent Geologist)
The expansion work has actually made the mountains unstable. It’s very unstable earth and there are recent formations. More important is consolidating them and they don’t have techniques for consolidation of the rocks. They aren’t even aware of the latest geo techniques that are to be used for the consolidation. The primary concern is that they are disturbing the rock.
There are numerous joints where more material is to be injected to consolidate them further. Instead, what they do, they try to remove the rock. Once they remove the rock, it loosens everything. To consolidate, grouting is to be followed along with the specific iron rods with specific strength, that would strengthen the entire mountain. In no way are they supposed to remove the rock. The more they open it at a vulnerable level, the more likely there are going to be slides and the harsh ones. Due to the disturbance, even the mudslides are coming down. Using age-old or layman’s techniques is in no way going to make it stable. They are supposed to use geological techniques. They just cannot touch the class 4 rocks. Except Iron Rod grouting, 20mm, and rock crating, there is no other way.
Anyone who’s involved in has to take care of the primary method of dip and strike of the rock.
(Scientific Staff Officer, Dept. of Ecology, Environment & Remote Sensing, J&K)
It is a National Level Project, and for assessment, they need to apply at State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA). They prepare the project proposal and present it to the State Environment Expert Appraisal Committee (SEEAC), and mention the impact on the environment so that to maintain a balance between development and sustainability. The experts then give their comments and the project is finally approved or disapproved.
But in this case, the assessment doesn’t work, last year we surveyed and noticed various things and then we prepared and forwarded an advisory to the National Highway Authority but the reply was that for Chenani – Nashri Tunnel there is no need of environmental clearance.
(Secretary, State Environment Expert Appraisal Committee)
It is a National Level Project and they have their own teams who do the environmental impact assessment. The environmental clearance for the National project comes from the Govt. of India. We don’t have any role to play in this. We are state-level committee we deal with the assessment of state-level projects.
Impact of Highway Blockade on Fruit Industry
Bashir Ahmad Basheer
President, New Kashmir Fruit Association, Parimpora, Srinagar
Due to blockade of Srinagar- Jammu highway, we suffer huge losses. Fruit-laden trucks are stuck for days in the highway which not only damage the fruit quality but also affect the supply and demand. Ultimately, results in the losses to the farmers.
The condition of roads is not good despite paying the high fare. The govt should take a keen interest in resolving these issues. And fruit laden trucks should be given preference.
Mohd Ashraf Wani
(President, Fruit Mandi, Shopian)
Due to frequent blockade of the national highway, the quality of our fruits is damaged. The fruit-laden trucks are stuck at the Qazigund for days and the night temperature dips below freezing point and due to this frost attacks the fruits and when the truck reaches to other states the fruit bursts because of high temperature. Also, the trucks reach the mandi’s at once which results in increased supply and less demand.
The road connectivity should be given priority and the smooth flow of fruit-laden trucks should be made possible.
(President, Zamindar Association, Shopian)
The blockade of the National Highway is the biggest problem for the horticulture sector. The fruit-laden trucks are stuck for days and the quality of apple keeps depreciating with the time finally the farmer doesn’t get the good price. The blockade of roads also increases transportation costs.