India – where repairing a bad road could make life worse

There is a long road that runs from Mantri Mall to Sankey Road, in Malleshwaram, Bengaluru, called Sampige Road. There are eighteen smaller roads that branch off from it on either side (straightforwardly numbered one through 18), and both the main stem and almost all of these side roads, or crosses, are full of shops selling everything from flowers to clothes, from SIM cards to electronic goods. Sampige Road is an excellent neighbourhood shopping destination. So it was true to experience when the city government decided to ruin it. (I live nearby and have firsthand details.)

The tree-lined line marked ‘Sampige Road’ runs from the bottom to the top of this Google Earth screenshot.

Some years ago, the then AIADMK government in power in Tamil Nadu, as well as in Chennai, wanted to revamp the city’s Pondy Bazaar area, a very popular shopping destination (with bigger stores than on Sampige Road and its Chennai counterpart, Ranganathan Street), under the Indian government’s mega-gentrification project, a.k.a. the ‘Smart Cities’ mission. The mayorate collected all the roadside hawkers and pushed them into a building in Pondy Bazaar, which defeated the point of why roadside hawking is successful (opportunistic buying) while the building also quickly turned squalid, and it repaved the sidewalks and widened the mainstem road.

On November 6, 2021, Chennai received 23 cm of rain; two days later, it received 21 cm more. These were both previously unreported quantities of rain in 24 hours in the city for many, many years, and thus it flooded almost everywhere. But one of the places that flooded first, the most and the longest? Pondy Bazaar. City officials had relaid the mainstem in the market not with asphalt but with concrete. Chennai has an average elevation of 16 m but the part of the district hosting the urban complex is almost entirely flat relative to the sea, which means water poured over the city isn’t eager to run into the Bay of Bengal. The concrete road and the repaved sidewalks in Pondy Bazaar exacerbated this problem: all the surfaces held the water there like a big bowl.

The roughly square shaped area cut by the diagonal mainstem in this Google Earth screenshot is Pondy Bazaar.

A similar fate awaits Sampige Road, which the local government plans to re-lay from 1st cross to nearly the 15th cross with concrete – including the sidewalks, which have until now been a medley of roadside vendors and pedestrians.

There are four more things that make matters much worse. The first two are unique to Sampige Road. First, it is sloped, climbing upward at about 30º from 1st cross onwards and plateauing around 16th cross. This means rain that falls over this stretch of the road will run off into the crossing roads or, more likely, pool into the four-way junction at the origin of Sampige Road – a point that is already notorious for awful traffic jams.

Second, Chennai has historically received more rain than Bengaluru but most of the former’s rainwater arrives in just two months (October and November) while the latter receives it more uniformly, from May to November. Put another way, Pondy Bazaar will be a watery hellscape for two months but Sampige Road, and/or its immediate neighbourhood, is at risk of being that way for more than half the year.

Third, ‘Smart Cities’ or not, concrete roads are a symbol of lazy governance. Their prime advantage is that they last for longer before requiring repairs. Asphalt roads are more easily damaged by rain because the water seeps into and destabilises the undersoil, which adversely affects the integrity of the asphalt. But on the flip side, asphalt roads can be patched, whereas concrete roads – which are often reinforced with embedded steel rods – need to be replaced block by giant block. Additionally, in Pondy Bazaar at least, the road is already bumpy and coarse. Concrete roads also reflect most of the incident light and heat (leading to glare and hot environs) and are more slippery when it rains.

The fourth problem is the most important. By opting for concrete roads over asphalt ones, both cities are solving for road repairs – the one consequence of heavy rain for which governments are most accountable. But in both cases, the governments are making problems worse for the people using these roads. Both a single, intense burst of rainfall as is typical in Chennai and a sustained campaign of showers as in Bangalore will lead to flooding. The only option for this water to drain will be stormwater drains.

In Pondy Bazaar, once the flood waters had drained, experts found that the area’s new stormwater drains, installed/refurbished at a cost of Rs 110 crore under the ‘Smart Cities’ mission, were insufficiently voluminous and, crucially, in almost a dozen areas, were located higher off the ground than where the water collected. This combination caused water to flow out of stormwater drains in the area, maintaining the mainstem in a constant state of floodedness. There is a related problem (the real fourth problem) that many news reports at the time didn’t address, and is likely to affect the new Sampige Road as much as it did Pondy Bazaar: garbage.

Stormwater drains around India’s cities are routinely choked with plastic trash quite simply because people litter where they feel like, with no regard for public or, for that matter, infrastructural hygiene. The drains around Pondy Bazaar were already poorly planned; they’re also highly likely to have been loaded with trash, leaving the rainwater with fewer opportunities to move away from the area.

Similarly, in the near future, the people of Sampige Road will enjoy easier walking, driving and shopping experiences for a little while longer than if the city had relaid the road with asphalt – but at one point, the area will confront the same state of dysfunction towards which the road is already barrelling today: stagnating water, traffic jams and unsafe conditions for pedestrians. The garbage problem is harder to solve because it’s not a technological problem but a social one: it’s more wicked, requires ‘soft’ solutions like raising awareness and changing people’s attitudes, needs carefully designed incentives that – among other things – will require people to repose more faith in the government, and will ultimately improve living conditions without translating into bursts of revenue from a contractor hired to build the road and later to undertake expensive repairs.

Concrete roads do have another advantage: manufacturing asphalt required for road-laying is more harmful to the climate than manufacturing concrete (although both materials are up there in terms of their carbon footprints), but I’m yet to read of city officials alluding to this benefit in their statements. I’m also curious about the respective carbon footprints for the entire lifecycle of both materials in use, especially considering asphalt can be made in smaller quantities and asphalt roads are amenable to being patched.

Perhaps more importantly, both Bengaluru and Chennai are endowed with well-funded, well-staffed research institutes (IISc and IIT Madras). Couldn’t city officials have commissioned them to develop road-laying materials that last longer, can be patched and are absorbent or porous? Such a material, together with changed social attitudes towards littering and a ban on cars on Sampige Road, will be the ideal solution.

Featured image credit: Credit: Liam Riby/Unsplash.