While in Trivandrum for a few days, I came across the raging controversy about what should be the width of the National Highways (NH), and could not resist wading into the debate. These quick comments about the specific situation in Kerala is from a cursory understanding, though its general thrust is relevant for all road-widenings.
The crux of the issue is that while the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has proposed widening NH 17 and 47 to a width of 45 m, public opinion (crystallized in an all-party meeting) favors restricting it to 30 m.
In this context, I am reminded about an old post, in the context of Vijayawada road-widenings, that argues in favor of framing road widening debates in terms of lanes rather than road widths. I am inclined towards the view that the debate should have been formulated as a requirement of 3/6 (or 4/8) lane carriageway with a 4-5 m wide service road, instead of the 30-45 m width choice.
Taking cue from behavioural psychology, it is far easier to bargain for a reduction in road width by 5 or even 15 m, as opposed to negotiating for reduction in one lane or dispensing with the service road. One carriage lane or a service road has a much greater cognitive salience than 5 or 15 m. Anybody who has done road widenings on scale would appreciate this dimension of collective psychology.
In many respects, road-widening is a classic collective bargaining game where framing the context of the negotiations is critical. An appropriate formulation of the choices can considerably increase the odds of achieving a successful result. Therefore, and in view of the aforementioned political dynamics, a more realistic final goal should have been to push through atleast a six lane carriageway proposal, even if without any service lanes.
Given the fact that existing roads are 10-15 m wide, a 45 m road widening proposal would have meant an effective tripling of the existing width, a difficult proposition in a densely populated and urbanized context, as in Kerala. At best of times Kerala is a difficult place to push through such measures. The numerous examples of tortuously slow road-widenings in Trivandrum city is a reflection of this difficulty.
In a state where travelling 60 km on NH 47 from Trivandrum to Kollam takes more than 90 minutes, the impact of even a 30 m road widening on Kerala's economy can be dramatic. To the extent that road transportation is one of the critical infrastructural engines of economic growth, substantial economic activity in the state remains suppressed/disincentivized by the narrow highway roads.
A 30 m (or 100 ft) road will have 1.2 m (5 ft) central median, with 10.5 m (=3.5x3) (or 33 ft) of three-lane carriageway, about 2.5-3 m of drainage, and 0.6-1.1 m of shoulders on either side. This specification would be adequate to meet the basic requirements. All the more so, since unlike other states, Kerala does not serve as a transit pathway for the North-South or East-West passenger and freight traffic. Further, given its limited industrial base, a wider NH would be more useful in facilitating the growth of the state's services sector than promoting freight traffic. While a 60 m width would have been a luxury, and 45 m width ideal, the aforementioned practical considerations means that a 30 m width should be a good second-best solution.
Further, the success or otherwise of road widenings are critically dependent on the flexibility in the widths across stretches (without compromising on the essentials) and compensation payment strategies. This is all the more so since given the urbanized nature of the state (especially adjoining the NH), the NH widening across a major length (and from where resistance is likely to be most vocal) will be similar to widening of city roads. In such environments, decentralized negotiations (at official level, as is done in states like Andhra Pradesh) can yield quick and fairer results, though it carries the risk of politicization and corruption.
Though, in comparison to the regular land accquisition process, the NHAI's procedures are faster and its compensation amounts larger, such urban land accquistion will have to embrace more innovative approaches like transferable FAR bonds (TDRs), waival/concessions on building fees, impact fee concessions etc. Further, there should be a distinction made between those losing the major share of their property (as to leave the remaining extent virtually useless) and those who lose only a smaller share of their property; houses and commercial establishments; and owners and tenants.
There is an Econ 101 arguement in favor of the 30 m proposal. Even with the 45/60 m widening, the carriageway will be no more than 4 or 6 lanes, and the remaining land will be left barren as shoulders to be brought to use when required. In any case, the NHAI roads do not have any drains and the concept of ducting to lay utility lines is yet to catch up even in the metropolitan cities.
In the circumstances, we are looking at accquiring and leaving 15 m (or 50 ft) of road width for a length of 500 km (i am not sure of this figure) virtually unused for a considerable period of time (let us say 10 years). Leave aside the virtual certainty of its encroachment, especially in the densified and urbanized context of Kerala, the sheer economic waste incurred by leaving 7.5 million sqm (or around 16000 acres) of valuable real estate (in fact, the most valuable lands in the respective towns/villages) area unproductive is staggering.
Back of the envelope calculations assuming a very conservative rate of Rs 5 m per acre would yield an asset worth Rs 80 bn (or Rs 8000 Cr) proposed to be left idle. The net present value of this investment, over a period of 10 years and assuming a discount rate of 10%, would surely be many times more than the cost of accquiring the same land after ten years. This calculation ignores the net economic return components like tax revenues from any prospective economic activity (which would be imminent once the widening is completed) on these lands and the contribution of the local economic multiplier due to this activity.
Even assuming sky-rocketing land values with road widening, there is surely some broad limit beyond which land values cannot just shoot. Though these calculations are also valid for other states, the virtually rural and uninhabited nature of their (say Andhra Pradesh or Orissa) NH stretches means that the opportunity cost of leaving them idle is not very large.
If the 30 m width is finally agreed to, the government should immediately demand consent letters from all those affected, and the demolitions should be done at the earliest. The momentum generated by the width concession should be leveraged to complete the widening and construction in quick time.
In light of this, a more practical choice facing the government now is between a swiftly executed 30 m widening and a lingering 45 m widening entangled in endless litigation. Take your pick.