Rising streets and shrinking homes: Why proper road relaying is essential

Road relaying works are underway in Chennai. With milling taking a back seat, these projects bring more harm than benefit to citizens.

Six months ago, the Tambaram City Municipal Corporation carried out work on East Main Road and West Main Road in  Sri Prashanthi Colony, Madambakkam. In the past ten years, these roads were re-laid three times and each time, their heights increased considerably. The new roads came as a relief for residents only until the onset of the Northeast monsoon in 2023. 

As the interior roads including the 2nd, 3rd and 4th cross streets of Sri Prashanthi Colony have not been re-laid, excess water runs down to these roads which now lie at a lower level compared to  the main roads. “Residents in these interior roads had to walk in knee deep water last December when rains lashed the city. The new, elevated roads are the reason why these localities get inundated even if there is a drizzle,” said T Ayyappan, Secretary, Sri Prashanthi Colony Residents Welfare Association. 

Consider this: the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) re-laid the 30-feet wide Crescent Road, located at Ambattur in 2019. The old road wasn’t dug up and as a result, the new road has increased to the height of three steps. “The road is now at the same level as the ground floor of my house,” said S Suresh, President, United Welfare Association, Ambattur. 

In both these cases, the local bodies did not mill the roads before relaying the old ones. While Indian Road Congress norms state that bituminous concrete has to be milled for a depth of 40 mm and re-laid at the same height, local bodies either do not mill the roads or do a substandard job.  

The Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) recently announced a massive drive to relay roads across the city. Civic authorities have been actively sharing information on social media about the ongoing road works. On the ground, the reality is a little different. In the series — Bumpy Roads Ahead, our articles will look into issues around inadequate road infrastructure; waterlogging caused by unscientific road engineering and also focus on solutions for better roads.      

In the second part of the series, we focus on discrepancies in road relaying in different parts of Chennai and suggestions for better roads.  

Read more: Road milling an eyewash: Perambur residents suffer consequences of shoddy work

A lackadaisical approach

It took a massive citizen participation and protest to get the GCC to mill the Second Street and Second Cross Street of North Jagannatha Nagar Annexe, Villivakkam in 2022. Citizens of the 40 houses located here opposed the contractor’s move of laying the road without milling the old one to the stipulated level. 

“We had to call the city police. We stopped the contractors from relaying the road at 10 pm,” said Liliyan Swarnakalai (65), a resident. Having lost her furniture and electronic appliances multiple times since 2015 after water seeped into her house during rains, Liliyan decided to put a stop to it. 

“The damage to the doors and appliances, and contamination of the Metrowater sump resulted in high expenses every year. I had to increase the height of my building by four inches as the road’s height had increased after the roadworks in 2012. We did not want a similar experience this time,” Liliyan told Citizen Matters. 

A close look at some recently constructed roads reveals that GCC contractors mill the city areas, in contrast with the suburbs, where roads are refurbished without milling. Public awareness of the consequences of non-milled road reconstruction prompts contractors to incorporate milling in city projects. Nevertheless, it is evident that contractors do not mill roads to the precise height before relaying.  

When GCC re-laid the stretch of Velachery-Tambaram Main Road near Pallikaranai in 2019, the contractors had scraped only the top layer, resulting in the increase in the road’s height. This has been the case across the city.

How milling should be carried out

road relay
Coastal Road in Kalakshetra Colony was haphazardly milled and the height of the road after relaying has increased considerably. Pic: Saakshath Vijay

“Whatever the height of the road that has been milled, the same height should be retained,” said Jayaram Venkatesan of Arappor Iyakkam, a Chennai-based advocacy group.  

How can contractors determine the level to which the road should be dug up?  “If replacing the top layer — bituminous concrete — is enough, then it should be completely removed before relaying. However, if the bottom layer — bituminous macadam — is also damaged due to construction of sewage or storm water drains, then it needs to be removed too,” Jayaram Venkatesan added. 

In reality, contractors remove less than a centimetre of the top layer and relay the road to more than 3 cm, increasing the height of the road. Often, the GCC approves tenders from contractors even though the documents clearly mention different dimensions for milling and road relaying. 

In a representation to the then GCC Commissioner Gagandeep Singh Bedi in December 2021, Arappor Iyakkam said, “For relaying of 14 concrete roads in Zone 6, the earth work for removing the existing road is given as 25 cm and the relaying components are given as Granular sub base of 12 cm, wet mix macadam of 25 cm and readymix concrete of 31 cms resulting in a total height of 78 cm. Therefore, the height of these 14 roads are expected to rise by 53 cm which is close to 1.75 feet.” 

Read more: Staying safe while driving on Chennai roads this monsoon

Arappor Iyakkam mentioned that the move would have a disastrous effect as the nearby households would go beneath the road. 

Here is another nexus. To cut down the costs, contractors often complete milling and relay the roads only after a month or so, posing a threat for motorists to ride on the roads and also resulting in dust pollution. “GCC contractors milled Sundareswarar street of Mylapore on December 24. Till date the road has not been relaid. Milling and relaying the road on the same day means contractors should transport both the milling and paving machine. To cut down the costs, they relay the roads late,” said Jayaram Venkatesan.  On a positive note, GCC revised a few tenders after the representation. 

Why is milling important? 

road height
Increase of road height and uneven construction is a problem in many localities of Chennai. Pic: Raghukumar Choodamani

As a thumb rule, milling should be carried out. Issuing an order in case 1963 of 2020, Justice N Kirubakaran and Justice P Velumurugan of the Madras High Court said indiscriminate relaying of roads without milling results in inundation during rains. 

In the 1980s the height of the platform at the War memorial was about five feet. After a series of relaying, the height of the road has gone up and the platform has gone down, the court mentioned.

New roads are ideally intended to provide relief to citizens. However, if the primary motive behind constructing these roads is to appease the electorate, and the necessary milling is neglected, it can lead to water stagnation and substantial property damage.

Six years ago, Rukmani Road and MGR Road in Kalakshetra Colony, Besant Nagar, were resurfaced without appropriate milling. This led to an elevation in the road height and a corresponding lowering of the ground level around houses. Approximately 98 residences, valued at 800 crores, are now at risk due to the need for road relaying, a project estimated at 80 lakhs, say residents. Such irony underscores the situation.

Not every road necessitates milling; the decision is typically made by project management consultants who estimate the requirements, said J Radhakrishnan, GCC Commissioner.

These consultants, often corporation employees, assess roads to determine if milling is necessary. Contractors failing to mill roads face penalties from GCC, impacting their payment, he added. 

Stating that the need for milling varies between schemes and areas, he said, “For instance, Marina Beach Road requires milling, while certain low-lying areas may necessitate height adjustments, making milling inappropriate.”

Despite this, contractors in the city often overlook milling, but GCC is actively working to streamline the process. In cases where a road laid a year ago is damaged, instead of opting for a fresh tender, GCC prefers assigning the same contractors for the relaying process, Radhakrishnan added. 

Solutions for better roads

Just like the Animal Welfare Ministry has put the ownership on the Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) to feed stray dogs, the municipal administration and water supply department of Tamil Nadu should make RWAs as recognised bodies in the road laying projects, say experts. 

“Only after getting signatures from RWA members on milling, the local bodies should initiate constructing new roads,” said a civic activist from Besant Nagar, seeking anonymity. 

The responsibility for road damages should lie with the GCC instead of solely blaming contractors. Local bodies should bear the liability for losses incurred. Release of funds to contractors should occur post approval from RWAs, the activist opined.

While relying on RWAs is a must in a democratic setup, it is important to remember that they are just a subtext of citizenry, said Sumana Narayanan, Senior Researcher at Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG). 

The rules and parameters of milling should be available in the public domain so that citizens can hold the responsible agencies accountable, Sumana emphasized. 

The Motor Vehicle Act of 2019 mandates the state and central governments to take action on contractors if milling norms are not followed. However, many state governments including Tamil Nadu are not adhering to the norms. “As per the act, contractors responsible for design, maintenance, construction of any road must follow the rules laid by the central government. Also if any death/disability occurs due to failure of road design/maintenance meeting the specified norms, then the contractor can be held responsible with a fine upto Rs 1 lakh,” Sumana said. 

Most importantly, a single department should be in-charge of road laying projects, other than putting the onus on highways department, public works department, GCC and so on. She underscored the mandatory nature of following Indian Road Congress guidelines, stating, “If IRC guidelines are followed, a lot of things can be ticked off. Following the guidelines is mandatory, not optional.”

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