Cement your future roads

Cement manufacturers of our country are a troubled lot. If they are getting upset, there could be some reason for that. What is it?
The news first. On 18 September, the Cement Manufacturers Association met Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. Their grouse: The Union government should take a policy decision to increase the use of cement-concrete instead of bitumen for the ongoing 6,000-km-long National Highway Development Project as also for the 7,000-km-long Golden Quadrilateral Project connecting the north-south and east-west corridors.

It is a fact that the cost differential between cement-concrete and asphalt roads has come down drastically. If the costs of concrete roads were initially 20-30 per cent higher, they have come down to less than 10-per cent levels. It is also a proven fact that if fly-ash is used in road construction, it can reduce cost and improve quality. But the current laws do not allow the use of fly-ash in road construction.
According to a recent study, the high initial cost of concrete is offset by saving in maintenance and vehicle operating cost, with both breaking even in seven years. The use of fly-ash will enable cost reduction by 30 per cent in addition to a 6-per cent increase in durability.

Now, lets open our eyes and look at the rationale. An efficient and sound road network is an urgent necessity for the growth of Indias already-staggering economy. The Rakesh Mohan Committee report does mention that bad roads cost more than the cost of good roads.
The Prime Ministers National Highway Development Project can be, in all practical sense, a right move for this initiative wherein six-lane Expressways and the four-lane Golden Quadrilateral will provide an accelerator for the development of the economy.

The prime ministers 1999 policy statement has contemplated extensive use of concrete, which will prove to be cheaper in the long run, environment friendly and fuel-saving to the tune of approximately Rs 200 crore for every 1,000-km stretch.

The most obvious economic advantages and technical options are very often not explored in developing countries. Properly constructed roads and pavements, though initially expensive, can provide a long initial service period, which is nearly maintenance-free. Additionally, roads are invariably not maintained in the right manner due to the absence of an organisation for the same.

In fact, bitumen prices have risen 300 per cent in the last decade whereas cement has risen by 90 per cent. A further increase in current bitumen price (Rs 12,000 to 14,000) will make the cost of concrete and bitumen roads the same in any case.

Now, the oft-repeated question. Why choose concrete roads? The World Bank invariably chooses concrete for new lanes based on economics - an example of this is the NH2 WB project.

The present hesitation for our own funded roads due to higher initial cost is self-defeating because, in the long run, many more concrete roads can be built with the same amount of money.

What the cement industry now should do to help is to provide technical advice on road design and construction, and arrange for deferred payments for cement used in road construction.