Will better roads remain a mirage?

In February 2014, the Corporation conducted a series of tests on the quality of road construction. An analysis of the 1,300-odd roads tested shows the depth of our problems

March 20, 2015 03:04 am | Updated 12:32 pm IST - CHENNAI:

Several of the 15 zones that constitute Chennai’s civic administrative boundary claimed every single road within their limits passed the quality test.

Several of the 15 zones that constitute Chennai’s civic administrative boundary claimed every single road within their limits passed the quality test.

While a third of all the roads that were quality tested last year by the Corporation failed, several of the 15 zones that constitute the city’s civic administrative boundary claimed every single road within their limits passed the test.

In response to separate zonal-level RTIs that The Hindu filed, several regions such as Zone-2 (Manali) and Zone-15 (Sholinganallur) claimed every single newly-laid road that fell under their supervision passed the quality test.

Those claims are objectively false, according to The Hindu's analysis of an extensive database containing the name of the 1,353 roads tested in 2014, the contractors who laid those roads and the outcome of the test.

Apart from being a misrepresentation of the ground reality, the responses also highlight serious challenges to the quest for quality control that began within Chennai Corporation in February 2014 – a period during which the civic body created a new department whose purpose was not just to evaluate road works, but comprehensively look at the quality of bridges, buildings and every other civic work that was being undertaken.

In the weeks and months since the architect of the quality control initiative, Joint Commissioner Vijay Pingale, was shunted out for ‘misguiding officials’ to act tough on corrupt contractors, there have been at least seven more transfers. In the last four months, the quality control department has seen three different Superintending Engineers — the official who is the de facto head of day-to-day affairs.

“I was seen as too strict. Many didn't like it,” one official said. “How can there be any realistic change if all we get is a few weeks in the department,” another official asked.

Since the central thrust behind the quality initiative was to introduce accountability and transparency into civic governance, potholed roads are a symbol, a manifestation of a deficit in governance, says Shreya Gadepalli of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

“Systems of accountability are obviously lacking in Chennai,” she said. “Eventually, all quality tests need to be logged and have to be made public. There has to be a public audit of all civic works. After all, there are obvious reasons why the Corporation may want to relay roads every few months.”

A senior Corporation official acknowledged that systems of accountability are weak and there are ‘deficiencies’, but said one reason behind many roads failing last year could be incorrect sampling methods. “Some of the road samples were taken several weeks after the road was newly-paved. It is well established in scientific literature that after a road is laid, binder content starts going down because of wear and tear. Once vehicles start plying, bitumen keeps getting worn off. This could be the case for roads which fell marginally short of the standard.”

However, such delays in sampling have been rectified and the current figures should reflect the true picture, he said. We also commit to putting the data out in future as close to real-time as possible since an “open and transparent system is the best safeguard against manipulation,” the official said.

Anatomy of Quality Check

Tests done three times a day at the contractor plant site to determine the quality of the road mix Temperature measurement using a digital thermometer - while laying >125 C

- while rolling >90 C

Actions shifts to the quality control lab set up by the Corporation at Chetpet which gets road samples collected from at least 25% of all the newly laid roads in the city
1Before road laying

3After road is laid

Compaction:

A test which determines how well the road was pressed by a roller

Average thickness:

Based on the thickness of the core cut sample, the depth of the newly laid road is measured Standard: 40 to 50mm

Camber/elevation:

Meant to test if the road slopes nicely towards the curb so that rain water won't stagnate

Average thickness:

Sieve analysis to test quality and grade of road mix

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