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Srinagar-Jammu Highway Mess: An In-depth Investigative Report

As a part of the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway collapsed on January 10, this in-depth investigative report by Ziraat Times delves into the factors that have created a monumental mess of this road.

Srinagar: Srinagar-Jammu National Highway has graduated from one big mess to a monumental one on Sunday.

After days of closure, the road – the only lifeline for about ten million people in Kashmir valley and parts of Jammu and Ladakh – suffered yet another blow when a crucial patch of the road collapsed at Kela Morh, Ramban. With this latest closure, hundreds of goods trucks remain stranded both within Kashmir valley and on the Jammu side. Thousands of passengers are struggling to find ways to reach their destinations. Factories and consumer goods markets are gasping for raw materials and supplies. Several construction works, both in public and private sectors, have gone haywire. At a time when Kashmir presents itself as a snowy dreamland, tourists are only pouring in small numbers by air, whenever it is available.

The video of the collapse, shared widely on social media, is quite telling. In engineering and technical terms, the collapse symbolises the crass inefficiency and lack of accountability that have characterised the design, management and maintenance of the road. In economic and humanitarian terms, the collapse is harrowing – over 10 million people of Kashmir valley, Kargil and parts of Jammu province now stand almost completely isolated from the rest of the country and the world, resulting in mammoth economic loss.

Today, even as authorities talk about the new Banihal Tunnel getting ready for inauguration this year and the Udhampur-Qazigund railway corridor likely to be complete by December, 2022; a number of questions still remain unanswered about the future of the Srinagar-Jammu Highway.

The 73-year-old Problem:

In the post-1947 era, even as Srinagar-Jammu highway – originally known as Banihal Cart (BC) Road – saw many improvements – the safety standards and the carrying capacity have not been able to keep pace with the rise in traffic and the geological degradation along the mountainous terrain. Today, the road presents itself as a medieval road, with cosmetic improvements and maintenance trying to make it traffic worthy. But the fundamental engineering flaws in the road remain. So do the questions about the absence of modern civil engineering practices in the design and the development of the new road.

The Expansion Project and the Unanswered Questions

The four-laning and improvement project of the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway was approved in 2011. In 2010, its earlier nomenclature of NH-1A was changed to NH-44. The work of the road was allotted to Hyderabad-based construction company Ramky Infrastructure by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). While the project was initially intended to be completed in 2014, the deadline has already been missed by six years.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) had originally appointed the Louis Berger Group, Inc., USA, in Joint Venture with LRP Consultants, India and in association with L&T Ramboll, India, as Project Preparation Consultants for Feasibility Study and DPR for the 4-Laning of the project.

Owing to its complexity, the 4-laning road contract package originally sub-divided the carriageway from Udhampur to Banihal (km 66 to km 188) into 5 packages. Experts involved in that packaging process have revealed to Ziraat Timesthat the original plan has been poorly executed, with highly questionable project management practices, in which the requisite sequence of development activities has not been followed, disturbing the delicate geological system as well as the smooth functioning of the current transport.

The Planning and Technical Mess

According to experts, 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.

“Both these projects running in parallel, often in disregard to technical overlaps, have created a very difficult situation”, one of the experts told Ziraat Times.

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 at a considerable pace, work on the most critical Ramban-Banihal segment is dogged by serious delays and challenges.

The Financial Viability and the Railway Factor

Informed experts today say that a crucial techno-economic component of the project has been grossly overlooked. Today, questions are being asked if there was a sound integrated feasibility analysis conducted by the concerned agencies for both the road expansion and railway construction projects. Companies building the road are said to be facing immense challenges in mobilising finance, because they are unable to convince financial institutions about the capacity of the road in generating the requisite revenue once the road is commissioned. That is mainly because the parallel construction of the railway line which is expected to eat up a significant chunk of the revenue-worthy traffic, mainly the goods traffic.

What is being done with the unstable slopes?

The most crucial and unstable part of the corridor lies between Stone 67 km at Udhampur Bypass Junction and Stone 188 km at Banihal. This is the zone which is witnessing considerable destabilisation and traffic jams, including the latest collapse on January 10 at Ramban.

Landslides regularly 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. A basic visual assessment of the expansion project today will make it clear that 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.
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.
Will the engineering techniques being used on the Banihal-Udhampur section 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 meters. 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.
How passenger and goods traffic is impacted on the road?
According to the data provided in the feasibility analysis of the 4-laning project, of all the passenger trips observed on the road, around 6% of the total passengers are internal i.e. between Udhampur and Banihal. About 26% of trips are either originating or destined 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 Timesspoke to said that few of these plans are being adhered to.
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 worked out to Rs.199.54 Crore. Little is known about how that money is being utilised.

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 is that 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 is involved has to take care of the primary method of dip and strike of the rock.

Maajid Farooq

(Scientific Staff Officer, Dept. of Ecology, Environment & Remote Sensing, J&K)

It is a National Level Project, and for assessment, they need to apply to the 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 as 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.

Humayun Rashid
(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 a state-level committee and we deal with the assessment of state-level projects.”

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