Road to be less travelled

MANAGEMENT & GOVERNANCE

S. Ainavolu

11/27/2021 8 min read

Road to be less travelled – Sub-urban chaos, climate concerns and actioning need

We live on Ghodbandar Road and the road is mostly a chaos. Ghodbandar road was showcased in mid-2010s as one of the India’s top ten “happening” realty spots! So, many went there only to be lost, lost in the overgrown traffic and realty corrections. Regular traffic jams on this road do delay the travel, and introduce wastages in life. This happens on a regular basis. One can’t model the traffic and jam condition is the painful observation. Along with an equally suffering colleague of mine in the previous workplace, I tried the modelling exercise. I hoped his engineering doctorate from IITB might help. The period was a few months before the Covid triggered lockdown. Day of the week, time of the day, month of the year, festival eve, rains, and agri season, all were considered as “independent”. These were intuitively picked-up variables but could not explain much. We ultimately discarded the exercise. There is too much of randomness.

Ghodbandar road can affect any sensitive observer. On many days the extra pollution due to thousands of heavy vehicles passing on often jammed road is contributing to the climate problem. Partial combustion in vehicles on the jammed road leads to more toxic emissions and these affect the public health. Last six years of my academic observation is, there is no action that is visible to find a solution to this. Or there exists a huge information asymmetry on “actions” and public are not privy to it. The ones supposed to regulate and help the flow proactively are happy with their undesirable role play as collectors. Unexpected ditches on the road, failed or collided vehicle(s) in the middle, and overloaded vehicles that fail to haul themselves are common sight.

Seasons bring-in surprises and new developments. Come rainy season, the rains on the hillocks of neighbourhood national park stream down. As there is no underpass or pipe to carry the water, road gets closed. So, vehicles halt for hours, patiently waiting for the overground flow of upstream rain water to weaken in quantity and speed. Huge safety issue. All this explains self’s interest around the topic and also serves as a disclaimer. Where is this road and what can be done to reduce the concern causes?

Ghodbandar was originally a port-village and existed atleast for last few centuries. It now got integrated into larger Mumbai, or technically part of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Literally Ghodbandar means port (bandar) for horses (ghoda). We studied in our history lessons that Arabian horses were used in hinterland wars, including by Deccan kingdoms during the medieval times. Ceteris paribus, these horses were the differentiating factor. Any such horse would travel this long distance only once in its life time. It was anyway one-way for them, they either die or wait to die in the “sold to” owner-land. But horse traders did many rounds, getting more stocks to feed to then wars and unending war preparations.

Strength and resilience of the middle eastern equine stock reportedly was unique. Additionally, these horses could bear the heat and dust of our central and Deccan plateau regions. So, both victors and losers of then wars of 15th till 18th centuries owe their gratitude to some extent to those horses, the Ghodbandar port, and to the connecting road to the hinterland. Wondering what was that road that was travelled by real “horse traders”? It is the same Ghodbandar Road that is present in our North Thane. Why this and only this road? Mumbai was non-existing then (mere cluster of islands), and other parts of western coast typically dominated by an aggressive European nation’s people. Under such circumstances Ghodbandar served as the safe landing port for Arabian horses. Naturally connecting to the hinterland was our very Unit of Analysis (UoA) of Ghodbandar road, straight and short.

Now a bit on imported horses and quadruped horse trading. There were reported references of foreign horses participating in Mahabharata war at Kurukshetra, I was told as a child during my traditional educational exposure. Possibly these could survive because central Asian weather and present Haryana (where Kurukshetra exists) weather might have had some similarity. But Australian horses were not so lucky. When trams were introduced in then Calcutta during 1870s, those were horse pulled carriages. Then British management probably thought that strong, well-built Australian horses can easily do the pulling job and imported hundreds for the purpose. In batches these horses were brought. Unfortunately, these could not survive the heat and sultriness of our Esplanade and neighbourhood areas. Those horses quickly died, more got imported, and more died. In a sense, it was like horse sacrifice and became unsustainable initiative. Ultimately tram services were given a long halt. Subsequent relaunch was successful with mechanized rakes. And, electric trams served for next one century. This is more recent example than our previous one dating to medieval times.

Coming back to our Ghodbandar road, possibly but for Thanekars and regular travellers to Gujarat from Pune and surroundings, not many would have heard of it. Many of my own Mumbai based, downtown centred friends and colleagues pleaded their ignorance about this road. I took the trouble of explaining everyone whether they asked or not about the road that to be less travelled. Initially a few showed some empathy and later all got bored of my frequent references to the road. It also triggered my recent job change, as “avoid Ghodbandar road, if you can” became my credo! In a sense, I became obsessed with the topic and still am. Leaving the city for another is one option to be explored.

On a serious note, it is a serious problem for a million or more on a daily basis. On the average one spends double the time on this road. Children missed exams due to sudden jams due to breakdown of a vehicle or random accident on the road. Many a life were lost in accidents or overturn of vehicles on ghat section. How old is this road and how long is this, uninitiated may ask? Old we discussed; it is historically embedded and existed for centuries. In fact, this was the “horse road” for over two centuries. Its quick decline came with rising gun power. Import of horses took a back seat, as horses were not the differentiating factor after guns made their entry. So, the road became less travelled and over decades thick forest grew around it. This forest is what is popularly known in Mumbai circles as Borivali National Park.

Earlier was the business history and now time for developmental history. Post-independence when highways were developed, Ghodbandar road became the important link between two national highways (NH). One that connects Mumbai to Gujarat, and another which connects Mumbai to Maharashtra’s hinterlands and moves northwards. With this development, Ghodbandar road which is of a dozen plus kilometre length started serving as a serious by-pass road. Over the years with inter-state movements of goods and people increasing, it again became important. It passes through real forest, and it splits the only urban national park of India into two parts. Even a decade ago, people on either side of Mumbai/Thane were reportedly avoiding this road after the sunset. Reason was, wild animals used to cross from one side to the other side of the forest and possibly used to attack humans.

Times have changed over recent decade. Still Ghodbandar road has some green jungle around it, it now developed a huge concrete jungle on either side. Ecological concerns? Yes, and seriously. Lot of new construction activity happened on this upgraded six lane road and many new “societies” came up in last decade. With this, half a lakh new “local vehicles” got introduced on the road. Tens of thousands of heavy vehicles aiming to move from one to the other of the above two highways are still traversing on this road. They hope to save time for themselves but take away time of everybody else. Traffic and density increased beyond any coping limits. With this, jams happen more often and are causing choking pollution due to increased vehicle exhausts. Public health has to be a concern in any urban planning. Else it becomes a serious concern. Respiratory issues on the increase makes the neighbourhoods “unhappening” localities. Corrections come in little and late.

Worsening the existing chaos is the slow-paced overland metro train construction. Construction related barricading reduces the road space drastically. Barricading happens months before basic mobilization. Signalling, it may serve as, especially if elections are around. It pays. Hence, barricading is the first to be erected though no activity happens there. Fundamentals take a backseat with semi-educated in the driving seat. Basic project management knowledge helps one in appreciating that phase-wise barricading and intense activity in that isolated pocket is the best approach in works that are happening around public used places. When we execute large industrial projects, piling and foundation may take months and huge ditches will be there that are even “minus twenty meters”, but safely barricaded for months. But this affects none, as these are isolated spots and human unhabituated places. Practically no one from public bothers what happens there and how long it takes to do that project. But it can’t be true when you are working on a public road used by a million or more on a daily basis. However, the sense of urgency is hardly seen. Covid can be an excuse for slowed down construction. But we have evidence that this sense of urgency was also missing in earlier metro project on the western line that took years to complete. All those years, all the barricades on the road, reduced road space and triggered unending jams. Action are required and swiftly.

One may possibly give benefit of doubt and take out the metro construction issue as “temporary”. But how does one avoid the issue of tens of thousands of heavy vehicles using the city’s internal road, jamming it, leaving more carbon into the neighbourhoods and introducing “life wastages” due to slow or no traffic movement for hours? There is no problem without a solution, we were impressed upon in childhood. Fundamental need is to have a “linking road” between two NHs, all agree and this needs to be “outer by-pass road”. This need not pass through the city should be the minimal realization. Ghodbandar Road earlier was such link road and it served well for decades. But it affected none then, as there was hardly a city around it. No longer it is the case now. Immediate need is to strengthen the vaguely existing two-lane road (?) from Kalyan side to Vasai-Virar side and make it a popular alternative. It has to be mandated that this route has to be taken by all heavy vehicles travelling to and from Gujarat. Then, these vehicles by-pass overgrown Thane and save a million or more from the troubles discussed above. Only the transport minister can guide and prioritize efforts, when he realizes the issue, one may wonder.

There also exists an infamous bottleneck at the connecting point of Ghodbandar road with Gujarat highway. Navigating the “Fountain” junction becomes a task in itself. As a regular traveller on the Ghodbandar road from northern Thane to northern suburbs of Mumbai, I could cross the junction in 2 minutes or even it may take an hour. Variability at its worst! De-bottlenecking, we are generally told, helps. Same had to be tried there, putting extra bridges over the creek and possibly creating a parallel lane for Mumbai bound traffic (vs Gujarat bound). Such realization, it appears is yet to dawn. Even chipping of the hillock has been happening for years. We may sometimes see a lone scooping machine “working hardly” to fill the only truck available for shifting the debris. Given this level of “resource commitment”, if the scraping project gets over in next five years, it shall be an achievement, one may think.

Now let us focus on the downside and ill-effects. Wastage of productive public time is a colossal national loss. A mere dozen kilometer travel taking close to two hours on a random day is unpardonable. When choked and jammed, this road makes this journey take three or more hours too. Extra fuel consumed, semi-burnt effluents adversely affecting environment, vehicle carbon criminally released in residential places, and frequent loss of life that happens on the busy city road forced to host inter-state heavy commercial vehicles, all these need immediate attention and action. Asking for too much one may wonder, but “Aspire High” should be our tagline.

The quick actioning has to happen around the recalibration, parallel development and bringing-in the sustainability initiatives. Else, Ghodbandar road which has become the “road to be less travelled” shall acquire the title of “road to be never travelled”.