Of Roads and Rain

While rainy days are more predictable now, the time and intensity of rain is still anybody’s guess. Whether the rain is more or less, heavy or light, in pockets or widespread, they are sure to damage badly built roads; more so in the hills.

Himachal, a totally mountainous state and with a growing road network, is particularly vulnerable even when showers of moderate intensity lash the hillsides. Depending on the slope and the runoff, rainwater dashes downhill and onto the roads. In the absence of up-hillside drains along the roads, the latter in effect become drains. What happens after that is well known to all who use these roads, but many are unable to understand why a series of new potholes appear every time there is rain?

“But we do have drains” some will argue. Well, yes but more for ‘cosmetic’ effect than to drain rainwater. The apologies we have for ‘drains’ along roadsides are like cemented right angles (broken at many places), which a few twigs, leaves and small stones or even a single, discarded poly-pack can effectively block, causing the water to flow onto the road. While technically, road surfaces are supposed to be made in a way that automatically drains off water (called ‘camber’), but this is for the drawing boards. In practice, road surfaces slope any which way, causing the water to hold, rush off, stay, become a pool (particularly in urban areas), where pedestrians become the hapless victims of splashed, muddy rainwater from vehicles charging around. The general public response of liberal use of ‘cuss’ words may offer some temporary relief till the next splash hits you when you thought you have crossed the bad patch. The Sanjauli bazaar is a great place to watch how pedestrians cope with rainwater on the road being splashed and sprayed around while trying to keep their shoes from getting soaking wet!

highway
A highway in Himachal Pradesh

So what does this rainwater do to the road itself? Besides making the road soggy and soft, where the water stays and forms little pools, it seeps in making the tarred surface and the metal below ‘unstable’ and causes the small pebbles and stones to wear and come off each time a vehicle passes by. Heavy vehicles do the most damage. And bingo, you have a new pothole waiting with sadistic anticipation to ‘bump’ any tire that goes over. Potholes ‘grow’ quickly (even when it stops raining) and in a matter of days your new, smooth road can look and feel like an old alligator’s hide.

But that is not all. Rainwater on the road has Plan B and Plan C and other secret ones. Where the water rapidly flows off the road, it washes off the soil at the berms and causes any number of retaining walls to give way. Especially those walls built with the express intent of fragility in design and engineering. The PWD’s ‘kaccha danga, pacci naukri’ motto springs from repeated occurrence of this road water triggered phenomenon. It is not always rainwater; sometimes High Courts, like the one in Shimla, have similar but more forceful effects of washing off entire stretches of road. At other times, in the absence of functioning drains and municipal neglect, road water can seep deep into hillsides and trigger huge landslides like the one that threatens to carry the Ridge in Shimla down to the skating rink!

What could a possible explanation for not making proper, deep drains along roads to adequately arrest wanton damage by wayward road-water, be? Once while traveling by road from Pokhra (in Nepal) to Kathmandu, I was impressed by the size and design of the roadside drains. Expectedly that road though mostly single lane then, was in excellent shape. Cost is often cited as a limiting factor.

“But what about the damage caused due to drain less roads?”

“That because it’s huge”, said the engineer “is included in the flood relief sought from the Centre!”

Nodnat - is a pen name that the writer with deep knowledge of Himalayan flora and fauna and a keen environmentalist has adopted. He hails from Kotgarh, in Shimla Hills and retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests from Himachal Pradesh forest department.

1 Comment

  • A delightful, but essentially true, article! A 10 km. stretch of rural road is adequate to sustain a couple of generations of PWD engineers in a fairly comfortable life-style! There appears to be an inverse relationship between their life-style and a road- as the quality of the former goes down that of the latter goes up. I have seen the phenomenon described by NODNAT playing out for the last six years in the village where I live, Purani Koti, about 15 kms above Shimla. Its located on the Bekhalti road, an 18 km long road connecting Mashobra and Bekhalti in Theog. When I first moved there in 2007 it was a perfectly good, single lane, black top. Then the PWD decided to double lane it for no reason whatsoever, and now it resembles something hit by a number of cruise missiles. The road is now a series of inter connected pot holes, the black top is long gone, dozens of trees lining it have been felled, landslides are a regular feature. Inquiries from the PWD reveal that the work has been awarded a number of times to contractors who obviously make their moolah doing the easy bits and then decamp! God only knows how many tens of lakhs have been spent on this road in the last five years, but the residents along the road know that it was in much better shape before the improvements began!
    On a more serious note, one of the main reasons for the shoddy work and infernal delays for which the PWD is famous is the fact that the works are not given to big, national players who have the manpower , equipments and logistic support to do a good job. Instead, under pressure of local MLAs and assorted politicos, the work is carved out into a couple of kilometers per contractor and then handed over to them ( no doubt under recommendations). These small time wannabees just don’t have the wherewithal to do a good job and hence what we get is the Bekhalti road. I only hope it’ll be ready by the time I make my last journey- I would not want its pot-holes to jerk me back to life again to another dose of ” man ki baat”!

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