The absence of bitumen on many of the roads that suffered extensive damage this monsoon speaks for itself – the rampant diversion of bitumen meant for road works.

The multi-crore tar bill scam (in which contractors siphoned off over Rs.100 crore by forging bills of oil firms that supply bitumen) that rocked Kerala around a decade ago is just the tip of the iceberg, said a retired PWD official on the condition of anonymity.

“The steep increase in the price of bitumen has resulted in it becoming a milch cow for unscrupulous contractors and officials. Transport and civil contractors connive with each other and divert bitumen, often with the knowledge of officials of the PWD and related government departments.”

Such instances were common even in NH and Kerala State Transport Project (KSTP) works. The PWD has not stepped up its vigilance and quality control mechanism, despite its image nose diving following the tar bill scam and the death under suspicious circumstances of the prime accused, he said.

Citing an example, he spoke of how an approximately 10-tonne lorry load of bitumen costs over Rs 4 lakh. Ten such loads are required for black topping 1-km-long road that has two-lane width. Often, half the sanctioned load is diverted to alternative work sites, estates or to contractors who do municipal/panchayat-level works.

Curiously, the chief technical examiner under the Finance Ministry measures gravel heaped at work sites, but not bitumen. “It is high time bitumen quality was standardised since the use of inferior quality results in roads withering away in the rains and due to constant movement of heavy vehicles. Moreover, GPS units must be installed in lorries that transport bitumen, to prevent pilferage and diversion. Above all, contractors who do inferior quality works must be blacklisted,” the official said.

A spokesman for Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. said that it is up to the agency or contracting firm that procures bitumen to ensure that the load reaches the destination. “As for ensuring quality, we test samples from each batch.”

Patch work unit

When his attention was drawn to the issue, PWD Secretary T.O. Sooraj said that the department would look into the allegations. On the inordinate delay in procuring patch-work units that could be deployed to repair potholes as they develop, he said that the order for one such unit has been placed with a foreign firm.

Neither accepting or denying allegations of unscrupulous persons diverting bitumen, contractors point out that roads can be better maintained if officials of the PWD and other departments supervised the works better. The president of the Kerala Government Contractors’ Association, Varghese Kannampilly, said that supervision generally ends with an overseer or an assistant engineer spending a few minutes at a site. “A huge army of engineers, including superintending and chief engineers are most often hooked to doing ‘clerical works’ at their office.”

They must also speed up awarding of road repair works so that the works can begin in November and end by April, just before the summer rain, he said.

PWD, NHAI and municipal bodies have not so far paid heed to the demand to focus on paper works of road maintenance works during rainy season, so that black topping/repair works can be done during other months.

Mr Kannampilly also demanded that government agencies raise the specification for road construction and repair works so that they conform to Indian Roads Congress (IRC) norms. “This will marginally increase the cost, but ensure durable roads. Moreover, resilient roads can be built if pre-monsoon reinforcement work is done at vulnerable spots. Drains too must be cleaned and steps taken to ensure that rain water flows into the drains,” he said.

More In: Kochi