April 21, 2006

Highways to prosperity

By HUGH & COLLEEN GANTZER (Times of India, Editorial, Fri, April 21, 2006)
It’s happened at last. Speaking in Panipat recently, the prime minister said that his government was investing a mammoth Rs 1,80,000 crore for building highways and road networks as part of its efforts to develop worldclass infrastructure. We have, for too long, accepted inferior roads as an inevitable consequence of our democratic federal structure.
We can learn some lessons from Malaysia. Their federated states are even more independent than ours because some of them are kingdoms under their own sultans. As for our roadbuilders’ perennial excuse that we have to accept inferior roads because we live in a monsoon land, Malaysia has to contend with soft and soggy soil of rainforests that cover much of their water-blessed country. And yet, Malaysia has the most efficiently user-friendly network of roads we have experienced anywhere.
On a road journey of an estimated 1,000 km, we drove north from the impressive new capital of Putrajaya through Kuala Lumpur and up the west coast to Kangar where we caught a ferry to the island of Langkawi. Not once during our long tour did we bump over any patchwork repair of the sort we frequently encounter even on our national highways: mud-roadside-stones-and-a-dollop-of-tar!
Malaysia’s North-South Expressway, in particular, was superb. This is a toll highway with toll plazas spanning the road just after, and before, every turn-off onto non-toll roads. Vehicles are divided into three classes depending on the number of wheels and axles they carry. The heavier the use the more the toll except that taxis and buses fall into their own categories and seem to have been given a frequent user’s concession! This has been done, apparently, to encourage tourism. At the side of the expressway, beside every toll plaza was an expressway office and a police station. Thus, the whole system seems to be as transparent and corruption-proof as possible.
Clearly, the expressways are significant income generators. Equally obviously, this money is being spent on the expressways and their facilities. Highway service staff, in orange uniforms, trim and till flowering hedges, refresh the paint on railings, and a man with a motorcycle sweeps wind-blown leaves off the expressway. Every two kilometres, on either side of the road, are free emergency telephones connected to the nearest regional communication centre. All you have do is to pull down the switch, let it go, wait for the staff to answer, and then speak into the microphone. There is a free, 24-hour emergency service dealing with accidents, traffic management and towing to the nearest toll plaza.
Fifteen to 30 km apart are lay-bys, located off the expressway. Here there are parking areas, public telephones, clean toilets and temporary snack stalls. Every 60 km or so are rest and recreation complexes with extensive parking areas, service stations, shelters, squeaky-clean washrooms with showers and toilets, food courts, shops, and stalls offering an attractive range of fresh and unusual fruit. Local traders, farmers and craftsmen, who sell their products here, once trespassed on the verges of the Expressway. When they refused to back off, the police started prosecuting all drivers who stopped to shop at these unauthorised stalls. That solved the problem of encroachment. All highway facilities are well sign-posted and colour-coded: Expressways have green signage, federal and district roads have blue and white ones, chocolate or orange and white identify places of tourist interest, yellow and red are highway warning signs. All signs are large and eye-catching, and the more important ones are duplicated so if you miss the first one, the second will remind you. And just to make life easier for Commonwealth visitors, a driving licence issued by any Commonwealth country is valid in Malaysia.
We gathered that most, if not all, expressways in Malaysia were constructed on BOT contracts with Malaysian, Korean and Japanese companies. Such privatisation is not a subject of rent-acrowd agitations or political obstructions that disrupt the free flow of traffic, because Malaysians believe that parliament is the right forum for such protests.
The authors are travel writers.

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