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Victims of my way or highway

If you have missed a flight or an appointment recently because of a seemingly endless snarl stretching from VIP Road to Jessore Road, don’t think it was just one bad day. The nightmare is here to stay.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has returned to the state a narrow, crater-filled stretch of NH 34 that is beyond widening because of illegal constructions and the Mamata Banerjee government’s hands-off policy on land acquisition. If that isn’t enough bad news for commuters, officials say the government doesn’t have the funds to maintain it.

The portion of potholed highway handed back to the state — around 17km from the airport’s No. 2.5 Gate and the Santoshpur intersection in Barasat — is the same one responsible for around 40 fliers missing their flights last Thursday. This stretch of the highway retains the name Jessore Road from the old Dum Dum-Jessore link.

Sources at Writers’ said the NHAI wrote to the highways division of the public works department a one-and-a-half weeks ago, mentioning its decision to hand back the 17km stretch to the state.

The letter attached a notification published in the Gazette of India dated June 18, in which the Union ministry of road transport and highways mentions that the new length of the NH 34 is 421.7km from Barasat to Dalkhola.

Officially, nobody in the highway authority would say that the 17km crucial to the flow of traffic to the airport and the northern suburbs had been handed back because of problems in land acquisition and removing encroachment.

Chief general manager A. Ahluwalia told Metro that the decision was in keeping with established norms of highway maintenance and expansion. “We don’t do patchwork like widening a road by a mere three feet here and four feet there. For us, any such job has to follow the norm of widening the road either to four lanes or six,” he said.

The NHAI will widen NH 34 from Barasat onwards, where land is available. “The other stretch (from Barasat to the airport) would be better managed by the state,” Ahluwalia said.

This is the second instance of the NHAI returning a portion of a national highway to the state government. A stretch of the NH 35 from Jagulia to Bongaon had been handed back to the state after the authorities failed to acquire land for a road-widening project.

The NHAI apparently made several futile attempts to widen the Jessore Road stretch of the NH 34 that runs along the periphery of the airport. A senior official who didn’t wish to be named said: “Since we took over (the NH 34) in August 2005, the plan has been to widen the entire length of the road from Calcutta airport to Dalkhola in north Bengal turns into a smooth, four-lane highway. There have been some issues regarding this that we don’t want to discuss.”

Once it became clear that land wouldn’t be available to widen the stretch from the airport till Barasat, the NHAI contemplated building a Calcutta Ring Road. The idea was to create a link between Barasat and VIP Road from the other side of the airport. That didn’t work out either.

The highway authority’s decision to distance itself from the cratered and snarl-cursed portion of NH 34 was apparently taken in June, some four months after the ministry of road transport and highways had allocated Rs 9 crore for “maintenance work” on that stretch. The order to repair the road was issued on March 29 and some work was done before the decision came.

The highway authority plans to complete the rest of the work before officially handing over the road to the state government. “We did a layer of this stretch but had to stop because of heavy vehicular load. Then the rains came in the way. We will finish the work before handing it over,” chief general manager Ahluwalia said.

But the next time the road requires repair — and that would be soon — the highways division of the public works department doesn’t have money to spare for it.

“There are at least five national highways under the state government, including NH 81 in Malda and NH 55 in Darjeeling, that demand immediate attention. How can we manage another one without any extra allocation?” said a senior official of the department.

Any kind of patchwork on a road is, of course, unlikely to last beyond a season.

“The problem with patchwork is that it fills a pothole and weakens the area around it. High vehicular load results in continuous wear and tear. Even after a drizzle, water will seep in through small ruptures and the road will get worse,” warned a veteran engineer in the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority.

A complete overhaul would cost around Rs 50 lakh a kilometre, experts said.

Who’s responsible for the state of the city’s northern gateway? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com