Four-laning NH-22: There are many bumps on the road to Shimla
The ambitious project of converting the National Highway 22, till Shimla, into a four-lane road is underway. The first phase of the project is being executed right now between Parwanoo and Chambaghat.
The troubles being faced by the commuters as well as those living along the existing roads whose houses and shops are being demolished has led to several questions being raised on the execution of the project in its present form. Then there are the concerns of those worried about the ecological damage.
The main debate, however, remains. What cost will this 'development' come at?
The issues are numerous and it is being hoped that the same errors are not repeated when the remaining two phases between Chambaghat to Kaithlighat and Kaithlighat and Dhalli are executed after the work on the first phase is over.
According to the officials of the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), the first phase between Parwanoo and Chambaghat is being executed by GR Infra at a cost of Rs 748 crores. NHAI's manager (technical) Yogesh Raut claims that it is expected to finish by the end of 2018.
There are several concerns that have been raised by the locals with regards to the project. The very first question is whether the government could have chosen to make an alternate road instead of widening the existing one.
The matter of trees
“This widening has led to chopping of around 11,000 trees in the first phase alone. The total number that will be chopped for the entire project is somewhere around 31,000. This is a huge number. The Shivalik Hills through which this project is going on has a very soft geology and it will take years for the soil to stabilise after the trees have been chopped. Couldn't they have thought of building another road and finally making the traffic flow one way with interlinking of the two at some places,” pointed out a senior media person and a social activist.
The chopping of trees has also already had its impact on flora and fauna. Availability of fodder for farm animals has also been hit.
Many people have been raising the afforestation issue and the upkeep of the trees that will need some years to grow. Raut claims that the NHAI has deposited the required money for afforestation along with the Net Present Value of Trees (NPV).
The afforestation has been carried out by various nurseries on barren hills near Parwanoo and Dharampur. He said that the Forest Department, as well as NHAI officials, would inspect these areas from time to time.
The impact on the topography can be gauged from the fact that the stretch witnessed more than a dozen landslides in just 48 hours when the monsoons arrived last week. This prompted the local police to deploy three patrol vehicles, two motorcycles and a dozen police personnel to patrol the landslide prone areas and advise people, particularly the tourists, not to park vehicles near the hills.
In the past, commuters and activists have reportedly raised questions on the quality of work after the eight metres by ten metres-high retaining crate walls crumbled at many places. Last year a Nangal-based pharmacist Subhash Saini had died when debris crushed the taxi in which he was travelling in.
Questions are also being raised over the decision to change the design of the retaining walls. The move was shelved when the people pointed that 'crate walls of more than four feet are not successful in the hills'. They pointed to a number of high retaining crate walls erected without proper foundation that had collapsed near Dharampur and Solan bypass road.
Such retaining walls showing signs of collapse are also being witnessed on the already completed stretch between Pinjore and Parwanoo that falls outside Himachal Pradesh but is a part of the same project.
People are questioning the wastage of public money in first implementing wrong designs and then going in for their proper rebuilding based on redesigning.
“Things have remained in a mess as the execution has not been systematic. The supervisory agency is not seen on the ground,” says Brigadier (Retired) DS Chajjta who has been commuting on this stretch on daily basis.
Build those walls!
Raut disclosed that various bio-engineering measures will now be introduced to check the land slips. These include masonry walls, reinforced earth walls besides concrete walls and mesh cover.
The drive on this stretch that was once a traveller's delight has turned into a nightmare over the last two years. Covering a mere 80 km between Chandigarh and Solan can take up to four to five hours at times through dusty patches.
The work on the project had come to a halt for almost eight months last year following the National Green Tribunal Order (NGT) banning the felling of trees. It was only in December that the Himachal Pradesh High Court stayed this order.
The first phase is the most complicated to execute and the demolition of around 300 structures is underway. A large number of these are illegal.
While the legal owners are being compensated for the losses there are again questions about hundreds losing their livelihood that have come up. These people will have to start from scratch once again. In this context, one has to just go to Dharampur and see how one side of the road stands devastated.
Tenders & more
The work on the second stretch between Chambaghat and Kaithlighat stands delayed because the NHAI is now going in for re-tendering for executing this 23 km stretch. The cost of four-laning on this stretch is expected to be around Rs 600 crore.
Meanwhile, the contract for the 27 km third stretch has been given to Chetak Enterprises. The work on this stretch too is yet to commence.
The locals contend that the authorities must take them in the loop as they can come up with certain practical and cost effective suggestions that can not help in traffic management but also protect and promote local livelihoods and ecology. They point out that the companies executing the project employ migratory workers who are not well versed with local topography and ecology.
The long term impact of the project will be visible some years down the line. What remains to be seen is whether it achieves the desired results of decongesting Shimla and Solan while reducing the travel time to Chandigarh. After all, a good road will also mean more vehicular movement on it.