A crack or pothole appearing on a bitumen road within months of its construction is no wonder in India. Poor quality is to blame in this case. Yet, even the best bitumen roads have much shorter life than concrete ones. Maintenance of roads especially highways is no smaller exercise than making them. Thousands of crores are spent every year for road repair, but overall condition of roads in the country is still pathetic. Making concrete roads is seen as a solution to this problem. Union Road Transport and Highways minister Nitin Gadkari recently announced that all new major roads will be made concrete. The previous NDA government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee also made a target of making at least 10 per cent of the new roads concrete. But soaring prices of cement and apprehension of further escalation of prices once the demand goes up kept the goal unfulfilled. Gadkari, however, mentioned that the government has found a way out to get the cement in less than half of the market price.
The Centre’s decision to make concrete roads will have a lot of implications in other sectors. The sharp rise in demand for cement would lead to a boom in cement industry, which is not doing so well due to the slump in real estate market. All sick cement industries will get a chance to have a new lease of life. Besides, with the drastic fall in demand for bitumen, the country’s dependence on import will come down sharply. It will help save the country’s foreign exchange reserve. Looking at environment aspect, concrete has a lot of advantages. It is recyclable. Unlike bitumen-mixed pavement materials, broken concrete can be used in other constructions. Thousands of gallons of diesel have to be burnt to melt bitumen for road construction. Concrete roads will save the energy and cause less pollution.
Amid all the positive aspects of making concrete roads, there is however a dark side of the whole plan. A boom in the cement industries will lead to a massive demand for limestone, which is the basic raw material of cement. Limestone mining will increase on a large scale in the forest areas leading to a massive environmental degradation. Groups in limestone-rich states like Meghalaya are already fighting against limestone mining, which caused destruction to some millennia-old caves, a favourite tourist destination. The policy makers will have to see all the pros and cons before going ahead with the ‘concrete’ plan.
(Published as editorial in The Meghalaya Guardian on January 3, 2015)