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Why roads remain a raging issue in Uttarakhand

In the past few days, roads have been a subject of much interest and debate in Uttarakhand. The reasons are varied. After every bout of rain, there is usually a familiar feeling of exasperation regarding the potholes that one has to contend with. This year has been no different, except that now, with elections just a few months away, ministers are issuing deadlines and pulling up officials to carry out repairs speedily.
This ‘promptness’ underlines the fact that the state of roads is a pertinent issue that resonates in the public consciousness and in an election year, more so.
In a Himalayan state like Uttarakhand, roads have always been essential for carrying out the business of daily living. They are also quite often the yardstick by which the level of ‘development’ or ‘Vikas’ in a place is judged. However, unfortunately, while building an excellent road network covering the entire state should have been priority number one, we still have to contend with tales of pregnant women dying in villages in the hills because of delays in taking them to health centers in the absence of pucca roads. There are also numerous instances of frustrated villagers, sometimes after waiting for decades, deciding to construct a road to their village on their own rather than depend on government intervention.

Ironically, interspersed with these examples are instances of big-ticket projects like the Char Dham all-weather road where thousands of crores of rupees are being spent for widening an existing road network, often with disregard to slope cutting and muck disposal norms, ostensibly to provide faster access to the Char Dhams. The ‘faster access’ argument has also been applied in the case of widening a stretch of Dehradun’s Sahastradhara road which would enable tourists from NCR to reach Mussoorie faster. Since this would come at a cost of 2200 trees being chopped, it has justifiably raised the issue of whether such works should come at the cost of the green cover, which attracts tourists to Uttarakhand in the first place.

No doubt, decent road infrastructure is important – for tourists as well as locals alike. The point though is regarding priority. Shouldn’t existing roads be made top-notch first and access to villages be prioritized, while ensuring that strict quality standards are enforced and those responsible for road maintenance taken to task in case of untimely wear and tear? Also, in cases where widening is proposed, can’t it be done in an equitable manner, causing minimal damage to the surrounding ecology? Surely, there are enough modalities available in today’s times to ensure that this can be achieved? Help can be taken from geologists as well as specialists in road ecology who can use measures like mitigation hierarchy to evaluate the impacts of the road on the environment.

In conclusion, a firmer focus, pragmatic planning, and judicious execution of road projects is urgently required for the state. At all times, and not necessarily just before the elections.

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