CHENNAI: The Tamil Nadu government’s decision to bring highways under urban local bodies could open a Pandora’s box. For, beyond stiff opposition from political parties, the move has several implications, including excess financial burden, additional workforce to maintain newly-added roads within the local bodies’ purview and road safety.
According to highly-placed sources in the Highways Department, of the 62,000 km highways running across Tamil Nadu, nearly 3,500 km could be converted into urban roads. This includes 246.71 km of highways in Chennai. The Department of Municipal Administration under the State government is yet to come out with the exact length of highways to be renotified. A major challenge awaiting the department is allotting necessary funds for road maintenance.
Presently, apart from allotting nearly Rs 1,000 crore as highways maintenance grant to Tamil Nadu annually, the Central government reimburses the cost incurred by the State in maintaining some roads within its purview (including 9% agency charges), said a senior highways official, who added: “It will be tough for the State to match this.”
“This move will increase the financial burden on already cash-strapped local bodies,” said Senthil Arumugam from Satta Panchayat Iyakkam, a Chennai-based activist group. For instance, the Greater Chennai Corporation in its deficit budget for 2017-18 allotted only Rs 40 crore to maintain 2,967 km of roads at the rate of Rs 450 per sqm.
A Venkatachalam from the Association of Tamil Nadu Highways Engineers said: “Tamil Nadu will have a tough time ahead in finding replacements for 1,500 engineers (employed by the Highways Department) specialised in this field. We fear this might result in job losses and promotion cuts.”
Though better administration was stated as the reason behind this move by the State government, activists and political parties saw in it a step towards circumventing the Supreme Court’s recent highway liquor ban. More than 3,000 State-owned TASMAC shops were closed after the SC order.
Expressing dismay over the government not understanding the spirit of the SC order, A Narayanan from CHANGEindia, a Chennai-based NGO, said: “It is sheer irresponsibility on the part of the government, which is desperate to keep their liquor business flying, despite widespread protests.”
Going by statistics, there is very little to support the claim that closing liquor shops on highways will reduce road accidents. According to the Road Transport Ministry data, though Tamil Nadu recorded the most number of road accidents (69,059) in 2015, only 1.2% (818) of road accidents and 1% (142) of fatalities were caused by drunk drivers.
But data based on police reports has been disputed as there is a possibility of under-recording. Admitting it, a former Director General of Police said: “Since most motor insurance policies exclude damages caused by a person driving under influence, in many cases it is reported as death due to overspeeding.”