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* Kumares C. Sinha

May 23, 2007

India's lax safety standards, few qualified personnel obstacles to highway modernization

Kumares C. Sinha with paving equipment at Lucknow, India
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A team of engineers sent to India by the World Bank to assess efforts to modernize that nation's highway system has concluded that there are serious safety and personnel problems that need to be addressed.

The modernization of the national highway network is critical to India's economic development, said Kumares C. Sinha, the Edgar B. and Hedwig M. Olson Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering at Purdue University. But the current system and modernization efforts are plagued by major drawbacks, he said.

"Planning and design are often poorly done," said Sinha, who led the team. "Many projects are overdesigned, some are underdesigned. We found that there is an issue of accountability - that there are problems nobody takes responsibility for - and there needs to be more explicit accountability."

The program to create an integrated, nationwide highway system will take more than $60 billion and 10 years to complete. The system will cover nearly 50,000 kilometers, including highways to connect Deli, Calcutta, Chennai and Mumbai, Sinha said.

The team of engineers found serious lapses in construction safety and project supervision, he said.

"Planning and pre-engineering work is so poorly done that it delays land acquisition and construction," Sinha said. "And that can be improved substantially using improved technologies. For example, if they use aerial surveying methods, that will cut down construction time and cost. We also observed a terrible lack of safety in construction work zones."

At one site, a large concrete block was used as a traffic barrier, posing a major hazard.

"If you happen to hit this block, you are dead," Sinha said, noting that far safer alternatives would be guardrails and plastic drums filled with sand or water.

The team also documented what Sinha described as "a serious shortage of qualified engineering personnel."

"We feel that there is a lot of talent at universities in India, but there is little connection between the universities and this massive transportation development," he said. "In the United States, building the interstate system left a legacy in higher education. We had a tremendous growth in our research and training and education because of the interstate system. The universities were brought into the effort. India should have universities as partners because there is a great need for properly trained engineers not only now for construction, but also in the future to manage and upgrade the system. Where will the talent come from?"

The team also noted India's substandard traffic safety.

"Driving is perilous on some highways," Sinha said.

An example is the constant threat of head-on collisions due to motorists driving the wrong direction on highways. One reason for the driving tactic is that medians in divided highways do not allow motorists to conveniently exit, forcing them to drive far out of their way before they can get off. To avoid the extra travel, motorists simply drive on the opposite side of the highway - into oncoming traffic - so that they can access exits. An easy solution would be more frequent breaks in medians to allow motorists to exit more conveniently. Better traffic enforcement also would cut down on dangerous driving, he said.

"Traffic fatalities in India are about three times that of those in the United States," Sinha said. "More than 100,000 people die on Indian roads each year, compared with about 40,000 in the United States, where traffic volume is many times greater than India's. On just one 221-kilometer section of a highway, there were 335 fatalities in one year, 250 serious injuries and 101 minor injuries, for a total of 700 traffic deaths and injuries. That's almost absurdly high."

Much of the highway work will be financed through public-private partnerships, with private companies building and operating highways and collecting tolls, eventually transferring the highways to the government.

"That's a common practice now," said Sinha, who also has advised Chinese officials on expressway development in that country. "But not all roads carry enough traffic to make them sufficiently profitable to finance this way, so there will be some public money needed."

The team traveled along India's national highway system for about two weeks last fall, visiting construction sites, reviewing ongoing projects and meeting with government officials, engineers, contractors, design consultants and others.

The team, which submitted its recommendations to the World Bank in late December, included Phelps Klika, former deputy commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation; Boudewijn van Gelder, an associate professor of civil engineering at Purdue; Hardyal Singh, a former head of the highway authority in Tanzania; and Rohit Baluja, a highway safety expert.

Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709,

Source: Kumares Sinha, (765) 494-2211,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Kumares C. Sinha, a distinguished professor of civil engineering at Purdue, stands in front of paving equipment at a highway construction site near Lucknow, India. Sinha led a team of engineers sent to India by the World Bank to assess efforts to modernize that nation's highway system. The team has concluded that there are serious safety and personnel problems that need to be addressed to allow the modernization of the national highway network, which is critical to India's economic development. (Photo contributed by Boudewijn van Gelder)

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