I did not think I would survive the road journey this day to write this piece. It was a day on which I lurched from one ‘near death’ experience to another. I had no inkling of what was in store when I left the Garden Reach ORH just as the sky was lighting up with traces of a new dawn. The Vidya Sagar Setu Bridge looked lovely decked up in multi coloured lights. The Rs. 10 toll charge for the bridge must be the lowest anywhere in the world. Kolkata is still one of the cheapest cities to live in in India. Being fond of street food I ventured into a small eatery opposite the SER headquarters building last evening and had four chappatis and vegetable curry for Rs. 12! I was embarrassed to hand over a 500 rupee note, but the vendor returned change without hesitating even once!
The concrete road up to Balasore was treacherous since it has been excavated at intermittent intervals for repairs. Every km had at least two diversions. The road closures were unscientific; instead of closing off one side of the road for, say, 50 km there were more than 50 diversions for that distance shifting from one side to the other. NHAI and the contracting agency must be proceeded against for taking up such major works without adequate safety precautions. When diversions are made traffic from the opposite side is not warned of the traffic that may come headlong at them. Moreover, the vehicles taking the diversion must be asked to switch on their headlights to warn the vehicles on the correct side of the road. Speed must be restricted for such diverted traffic to 40 kmph and rumble strips must be placed to facilitate this. In addition, even when there is no diversion tractors and motor bikes wantonly switch lanes and drive on in the wrong direction. In a couple of such instances I braked and prayed, which was all I could do since a crash was imminent. In a couple of others I swerved and missed the oncoming car and bike.
The Commissioner for Railway Safety approves the opening of a section of the railway track for passenger traffic, after ensuring that all construction and safety standards have been complied with. Such a statutory regulation ensures that standards are not flouted and guarantees certain quality in construction and uncompromising safety requirements. It is my considered thought that the central Transport Ministry must create a similar authority tasked with ensuring construction and safety standards. The ‘Commissioner for Road Safety’ should approve the road design and safety features incorporated in the design, inspect the construction at frequent intervals and approve the section of the road before throwing it open for movement of traffic, whether freight or passenger. Even closing major section of roads for repairs must have his ‘work process’ consent and compliance must be strictly monitored.
I had every intention of taking the car to the Ford service station in Bhubaneswar, as Thulasi Ram had made arrangements for priority inspection and attention. As I neared Cuttack I changed the plan because of the time I would lose in the process. Between Cuttack and Bhubaneswar I lost a lot of time in congestion and decided to drive through to Visakhapatnam. The sounds emanating from the car had abated some, I reasoned. Acceleration was affected still and the grating sound was persistent. However, I thought it better to drive on and attend to the car in Chennai, where I had an extra day. I prayed that she would go on till then.
Will the correct NH number please identify itself? The leg of the quadrilateral from Kolkata to Chennai had the nomenclature of NH5 and was arguably the best among the NHs in India. However, this day’s driving experience suggested that that was past glory. Driving on from Kolkata to Visakhapatnam the National Highway number for that stretch varied from NH5 to NH60 to NH16! How crass? NHAI may be in the process of evolving a different set of numbers, but then, they should be consistent. Moreover, when new signages are placed the old ones must be removed so that the road user is not given conflicting or wrong information.
Once I got past Bhubaneswar the condition of the road improved and I was able to make up some time. Gopalpur, Berhampore and Ichchapuram passed by. I crossed over from Odisha to Andhra Pradesh. Freight traffic was not so high, which permitted faster motoring, without having to weave and dodge them. Thulasi Ram had arranged with the correspondent of The Hindu to do a report on the expedition. Accordingly, the photographer of the newspaper met us at the outskirts of the city. The car had gathered dust and grime over the past few days on the road. Before the arrival of the photographer she was given a minor makeover with water and soap solution. Once the photography session was over Thulasi Ram piloted me to his flat, which was just a short deviation from the highway.
Thulasi Ram took me to the Cozinha De Goa for dinner, after a couple of bottles of Budweiser at home. He claimed that preparations of fish and seafood at the restaurant are unmatched in the City of Destiny. He could not have been more right. We were joined in the restaurant by Rani Devalla, the correspondent of The Hindu. Over heavy snacks of fish fry and prawns we discussed the expedition and Rani made notes. In a short while she was done with what she wanted and Thulasi Ram and I continued with the rest of the meal. The food was amazing and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
I had only two more days of heavy driving left to complete the expedition in Cochin, from where it had started on 28 February. This day I had done over 870 km in less than 14 hours of driving. Visakhapatnam being the midpoint between Kolkata and Chennai, it was another 850 km plus to the capital city of Tamil Nadu.