By Chandrasena Maliyadde, Former secretary to the ministry of postal & telecommunication and plan implementation.
We hear and read about the colossal amount of foreign and local funds being invested in improving the road network in the country. Successive governments and policy makers have attached high priority to infrastructure development, especially the road sector as a prerequisite for development. Despite these improvements, the unfortunate public still waste hours on the road to reach their intended destinations or simply to cross the road.
Once you are on the road you will see all modes of transport from a bullock cart to a container carrier plying at any time of the day. A commuter or a bystander would hardly be able to distinguish between busy shopping hours and school opening/closing times. Anytime is a peak or rush hour, and all seem to be on the road at all times. Most private vehicles (including my own) carry a single occupant plying at the fastest possible speed while frequently changing lanes to gain a few seconds’ advantage over the vehicle in front. A motorist can patiently wait for two minutes for the change of signal at a junction, but can hardly allow two seconds for the vehicle in front to move. Many horns will start blasting. There is little road and traffic discipline that is observed these days with a free for all situations. Those who are expected to be law makers are often on the front line of law breakers.
When VIPs are on the road, let alone vehicles (from container downwards to a bicycle) and bystanders, even the safety of an animal would be left in Gods’ hands. Of course, they must rush to the legislative assembly as another piece of law for the “benefit” of the masses they represent cannot be delayed even by a few minutes. Some vehicles and riders carrying the badge of “Police” would criss-cross not even sparing those ignorant souls walking across the pedestrian crossings (Is that the right term considering number of lives lost on so-called ‘kaha ira’), thereby setting an example to other motorists the way they should drive in a traffic jam. Fortunately, we have some police officers who are tough with traffic offenders while they are on duty, and join the very same category while they are off duty.
All this colossal investment on roads has not done much to improve safe and convenient travel, traffic congestion, road safety and passenger convenience. Is this the final fruits of development we are heading for?
I have two concerns. First I agree that road network improvement is necessary but is it sufficient? Second, while we may have promoted the right prerequisite, the issue remains whether we have got hold of the right end of the stick.
We see all around us a vast rapid improvement in the road infrastructure. The amount of funds earmarked for Highways would only be second to that for Defence in the 2012 Budget. Yet city transport has become a nightmare. To quote from Prof. Kumarage: “Our administrators need to realize that planting trees along highways and making roads one-way while being bold, city beautification initiatives, fall short of ensuring the sustainability of transport in the city. “
I see the need for a combination of three elements for the improvement of transport facilities. Improvements in road infrastructure and availability of adequate number and types of vehicles are two of them. This is the hardware part of transport network. The hardware part is well attended and visible and is probably the showpiece. But we have to add the essential third element - governance of transport and traffic - to achieve the right result. I would loosely call this the software part or the soft side of the overall issue. This is a governance or management issue. Having said that, let me elaborate on what I would describe as the missing elements of this ‘software’-
First, responsible authorities or managers of the road network matter a lot. These roads are a “property” of different road development and Local Authorities depending on their type. The sign boards (pardon me, not the billboards prominently displaying the smiling faces of people’s servants) posted on the roadside would indicate an idea of who manages them. We as tax payers, vehicle owners, commuters, service providers (telecom, water, electricity, etc.) and cargo distributors are the beneficiaries of the road networks. We have to seek the permission of authorities (I am hesitant to use the term “mercy”) for new constructions or changes to a building. If your wall is destroyed for a road expansion, or if your child falls into a pit on the pavement, or if your vehicle topples over a pothole or even if you disappear in a drain on a rainy day, the “responsible authorities” are not responsible. You have to blame yourself. You are not only the loser, but also the culprit. This is due to lack of participation and consultation between stakeholders and road authorities. “Managers” do not consult the beneficiaries; they pay little or no attention to the needs and grievances of pedestrians, residents and other beneficiaries. This is outside the hardware part of road development but an essential part of the missing software in the equation.
Second, roads are often related to vehicles again as a piece of hardware, but not to vehicle users which is the software part. The priority goes for the vehicles. In constructing, rehabilitating, or widening the infrastructure, the main concern and consideration is for the vehicles. The result is that little or no concern is paid for shoulders, pavements, parking bays, drains, environment, among others. Although I am not an admirer of the British Colonial Rule, I appreciate the engineering wisdom demonstrated in road construction by the British. The road network built across the country including estate roads and rail tracks are living evidence for the British engineering skills. Unfortunately, some recently built or rehabilitated roads (highways) have been subject to serious land erosion problems. I attribute this to the lack of concern shown for the soft side of road construction.
Third there is hardly any attention paid to the maintenance of road infrastructure built at high cost. In my opinion, maintenance needs regular examinations and vigilance in addition to attending to repairs. Many of us often mix up repairs with maintenance. We attend to repairs after damage is caused to the road surface, but hardly pay attention to routine damage preventive maintenance. Technical knowhow, funds and arrangements are rarely in place when it comes to maintenance which seems to receive the least attention by the authorities. Due consideration is needed to be given for maintenance during as well as after the design and implementation stage of a road project.
A frequent sight you and I observe as road users is breaking or digging up a newly constructed road and leaving it unattended for days if not for weeks. This is probably to provide electricity, telecom or water connection to a resident across the road. No doubt this must be done. Well it could be aligned with road construction avoiding inconvenience, an eye sore and additional expenditure. It is not a question of technology (hardware) but lack of coordination - a part of the software as defined above.
To reiterate investment in highways and transport development is necessary but not sufficient for ensuring smooth traffic and transport operations. I have outlined above the missing elements in this regard focusing on management aspects representing the software side of the system. It is never too late to fill the equation with the missing software part to ensure the impact of transport and highways on national development and welfare of the public.