Better Managing our Highways is Critical, as Undertaking Carrying Capacity of our Hill Stations

They say that the best view comes from the hardest climb. But if the climb is a vehicular journey by road and it turns exasperating and exhausting, the feel too becomes ugly. Beyond the debate whether a road should be widened beyond 5.5 metres or not because of the fragility of the Himalayas, it is necessary to underline the criticality of suitable land-use planning, soil conservation and effective highway management.

Long before Joshimath’s sinking or the recent flash floods in Sikkim, Himachal and Uttarakhand that have wiped out swathes of highways, it has been evident that most of our hill-stations too have sunk – albeit, in a different way. They have become congested, over-constructed and environment management has been neglected. Well before one reaches the hill-station, logjams on roads leading to them, piles of debris and waste and shops cantilevered randomly on both sides, are eyesores that distress us. Even before we consider their carrying capacity, it is opportune to consider what should be done to better manage approaches to hill-stations. It is particularly imperative to safeguard routes like the Char Dham highway that is already being redeveloped at a cost of thousands of crores and that is expected to carry millions of pilgrims and lakhs of vehicles.

A new mountain highway is an outright environmental hazard to begin with. When old trees that bind the soil are uprooted, when drilling and blasting is done, then debris is generated and it runs down the slopes. Beyond the debate whether a road should be widened beyond 5.5 metres or not because of the fragility of the Himalayas, it is necessary to underline the criticality of suitable land-use planning, soil conservation and effective highway management. Once the road is operationalized, there will be unprecedented, even overwhelming surge of continuous vehicular traffic, making it impossible to retrofit and redress the situation.

There are several key measures that should become part of the government’s management agenda for all mountain approaches, including the significant Char Dham highway project.

First, government should (in consultation with the respective State Government) freeze the land use on both sides of each mountain highway till it is formally and scrupulously master-planned with the assistance of town-planners/architects. This is essential because the moment an alignment is declared, there is frenzied attempt to plan shops, restaurants, dhabas and hoardings along the highway in a random manner. Political populism at the municipal and state level invariably buckles under pressure from private business interests seeking to leverage land commercially. Structures get built directly abutting into the highway – to reap advantage of frontal access. That causes traffic pile-ups and environmental damage.

Secondly, have an entire program to stabilize the hills above the area demarcated for the road, not just the road stretch itself. When the base has been carved out vertically for the actual alignment, both the upper levels and the lower levels too get disturbed. This causes soil-binding plants and dressing to get dislodged, increasing frequency of landslides. In the long run, it causes the impact of heavy rainfall to be more deleterious. As we have seen this causes parts of the road to get washed away. Technical specifications too need to be strengthened.

Thirdly, particularly where the highway intersects urban centres and habitations, it is necessary to segregate the highway traffic from the city one and to control land use to a depth of 20-30 meters on both sides. Elevated corridors, service lanes and slip roads need to be provisioned to prevent smooth flow of traffic.

Fourth, it is necessary to master-plan and earmark designated points for wayside amenities –restaurants, toilets, car-repairs and other auxiliary services – even if it means compulsorily acquiring private land at a premium. Shops and related utilities should be prohibited at points other than at designated nodes; vehicles should not be allowed to stop at any other point. Kalka – Shimla and Dehradun-Mussoorie roads are glaring case studies – brimming with shops, one after the other, jutting precariously into the valley – a symbol of abject access surrender, poor traffic management, environmental impairment, apart from obstructing a panoramic view of the hills.

Fifth, a comprehensive runoff-characteristics mapping of the mountain area should be done by studying twenty years historical data rigorously to plan against water-logging, rapid soil erosion, flash floods that can damage the road. Concrete surfacing of vulnerable road sections and drains should be undertaken to ensure it remains impervious. Likewise, rigorous landslide mapping of the area will guide for undertaking special buttressing of sensitive hill sections with retaining walls, gabion structures, technical-textile mesh technologies and hydro-seeding of relevant slopes to stabilize them.

Sixth, noise-mapping should be undertaken in view of adjoining ecologically sensitive/wildlife hotspots. It is important to impose an SOP for commuters to prevent blaring horns/music volumes, and to regulate vehicle speed not only to prevent accidents and pedestrian safety but to mitigate undue stress to the natural environment.

Seventh, an Intelligent Transport System (ITS) should be put in place for traffic management along with a robust Passenger Information System (PIS) — only limited number of vehicles should be allowed at any time along vulnerable sections of the highway to prevent pile-ups and jams, especially during environmentally delicate periods. Even the tiniest of landslides can create panic – sudden reversing/jamming of cars can cause their collision and toppling over the hill.

Eighth, a fully equipped Disaster Management team and highway patrol should be in place (with tow-vans, jcbs, rescue teams and walkie-talkies), ready 24X7, to evacuate/redress chokes and accidents and remove debris in the light of the disaster-prone nature of the rock formations. This should include technicians for instantly repairing the highway – to redress geometric deficiencies, faults in electric fittings/crash-barriers/signages – in a prompt manner. They should work on the principle: repair first, recover cost later.

Ninth, decarbonize mountain transport in the context of climate change strategies by incentivizing electric vehicles (exempt them from toll for the first two years). Create suitable charging infrastructure. A special Sustainable Development Tax (SDT as done in Bhutan) be levied on hill-station visitors. Diesel/petrol vehicles (including 2 and 3 wheelers) should be charged higher SDT as per the polluter-pays principle. Shadow tolling of government/military vehicles should be done to keep a record of their carbon footprint.

Tenth, for major mountain highways such as the Char Dham one, it would be wise to establish an Environment Protection and Safety Management Company – this should be run professionally. Verticals should inter-alia include – risk and emergency management, ITS, afforestation and access control functions. A predetermined percentage of toll revenues, SDT and other penal levies should be mandated to fund this company to make it sustainable.

Keeping in view the intense pressure of tourists/pilgrims and the exceptionally delicate Himalayan geomorphology, it is of vital importance that not only the hill-stations but their approaches should be better managed. The aforesaid measures for abatement and mitigation can ensure that the cost to the natural environment is minimized.

Once the approaches are addressed, a similar treatment can be administered to the internal hill-station roads by the local municipal body. One-way vehicular movement, pedestrian paths that are not encroached and better traffic management will yield instant results. Apart from the positive experiential benefits by way of tourist safety, visual amenity and aesthetic appeal, this will be an adrenaline boost for responsible tourism.


Raghav Chandra is a former Secretary GOI and ex-Chairman of the National Highways Authority of India.



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