The Modi Governments initiative to build all new highways using concrete in place of bitumen, has brought cheer to road sector experts as well as the cement industry. But contractors are worried about their future business prospects.
Urban Local Bodies and State Governments in the country spend an enormous amount of taxpayers money every year to add one or more coat of tar to make roads obstacle-free.
But these upgrades are only cosmetic additions that wear off soon. Now, this wear & tear might soon become a thing of the past as the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) plans to use concrete for road construction.
Since concrete has found strong support from MoRTH, many long-term contracts with cement majors across the country might be inked. The ministry is expected to purchase the construction material at a lower cost and shift to concrete roads. Observers also feel that this proposed bulk purchase might also result in correction of cement prices by as much as 37 per cent.
A source from MoRTH says, "CC roads are seen to be more durable although they cost more than those made using bitumen." However, he adds that the long-term contracts are only for national highways and not for State highways or city road projects.
When we contacted Rohit Kumar Singh, Joint Secretary, MoRTH to confirm the development, he declined to comment. However, VL Patankar, Director General (Roads), MoRTH, who retired recently told Infrastructure Today that the ministry has already ordered a cost analysis study between concrete and bitumen, and is trying to bring down the cost differential to 10 per cent from the current 20 per cent.
The right choice
Indian roads are presently not being built with the right choice of material. The two major types of materials used in road construction in the country are bitumen and concrete. Concrete takes up only a very small share of all roads in the country, despite its superiority on many counts as a medium for road building. Says Patankar, "Out of 90,000 km of road network in India, only 4,200 km roads are concrete." Bitumen roads remain exposed to water-logging, temperature, oxidation and sunlight, petroleum and lubricant spills and the assault of the weight of heavy vehicles, compared to the relative durability offered by concrete roads. DP Deshmukh, Superintending Engineer, Public Works Department, Government of Maharashtra says, "Potholes are only the earliest and most visible signs of the failure of bitumen roads." Earlier this month, Minister for Road, Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari had set an ambitious road-building target of 30 km per day. This could translate into construction of 45,000 km of concrete highway networks in the next five years.
A much better alternative to bitumen, experts say, is cement concrete. According to the NHAI source, the use of concrete or cement in road projects will help reduce bitumen imports. Fine bitumen costs Rs 56,000 per tonne. According to the Cement Manufacturers Association (CMA), with the use of cement concrete roads, there will be reduction in fuel consumption to the tune of 14 per cent, which is a saving of Rs 1.70 lakh crore per annum given current figures of vehicular movement. In addition, adoption of cement in road construction, may lead to annual foreign exchange savings of around Rs 75,000 crore.
Road experts say that concrete roads have an additional advantage. Limestone, an ingredient used in manufacture of concrete roads, is available in abundance in India. Bitumen has also witnessed rapid price escalation. It used to cost Rs 500 per tonne in 1960, now bitumen is priced at Rs 40,000/tonne. Price of cement stood at Rs 10 per bag in 1960, and has touched Rs 240 in 2014. Industry estimates reveal the cost of bitumen might reach Rs 1.8 lakh per tonne in the next 15 years, while cement cost may touch Rs 480/bag in the same period.
Capacity and requirement
At present, the cement industry manufactures around 370 million tonnes per annum, which is only 70 per cent of total capacity utilisation. Now, according to CMA, if the government constructs 20 km per day, i.e., 7,300 km a year, the requirement for concrete will not be more than seven million tonnes, which is well within the reach of cement manufacturers.
Although road experts and cement manufacturers are overjoyed with the recent developments, the road contractors are not happy. Thats because contractors make a tidy sum from bitumen road maintenance and operations. These profits will be significantly eroded with the plans to construct 45,000 km of concrete roads. Consider the following.
If 170 tonne of bitumen -- derived from petroleum crude -- is required to lay 1 km of two-lane road, about 900 tonnes of cement is required for the same distance. On the other hand, about 330 tonnes of bitumen is required for the maintenance of the stretch for 20 years. A properly laid bitumen road is likely to survive for a few years, while concrete roads last for more than 40 years.
"This clearly suggests that contractors will not gain from the concretisation of roads in the country," says a Mumbai-based contractor.
Another Mumbai-based contractor says, "Since the tenders for surfacing and maintenance contracts of bitumen roads come up periodically, with the concrete roads in place, these contracts may come up only in 4-5 years, resulting in contractors losing huge business opportunities."
But Patankar says that contractors need not worry about their future business, as the use of concrete is limited to only national highways and contractors will have ample opportunities in city and State roads. "Unless a ULB or State Government is cash-rich, these entities will not find it financially viable to construct concrete road networks. Contractors need not worry about this recent development," says a PWD source.
All said, the use of concrete in road construction is a good option considering savings in bitumen imports and saving foreign exchange.
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According to rough estimates, approximately 1,000 tonnes of cement are required for a 7 metre wide - 1 km long cement concrete road, carrying heavy axle loads and high volume traffic. Its approximate cost would be Rs 2.30 crore, using 25 per cent fly ash. It includes the cost of 30 cm thick Pavement Quality Concrete (PQC), 10 cm thick Dry Lean Concrete (DLC) layer and 15 cm thick granular sub-base layers (costs exclude land acquisition, earthwork and structures like bridges). However, for the same traffic volume and heavy axle loads, the initial cost of bitumen will be Rs 2.07 crore, as per the current price. It means the concrete roads cost Rs 23 lakh more than bitumen road. "At present, there is a 15-20 per cent difference. However, over the long run, cement concrete roads are cheaper. And looking at maintenance costs, bitumen roads need perennial repairs, as compared to cement, which is projected to have a life of 20-30 years," says Patankar.
Sustainable mode of transport is the need of the hour and since the government has plans to build 100 smart cities, it will need to invest in public transport, with a focus on city bus services integrated with other transit modes. But these urban dwellings can only survive when a city has a strong road network. At present, it is difficult to gauge the amount of road network formation in these proposed cities, but indications are that demand for cement (with the use of fly-ash) and geosynthetics will be on the higher side. (To read views expressed by Dr K Rajagopal on geosynthetics please see page no. 54).
Global roads - The big picture
Concrete is the preferred choice of material to build roads in most of the developed world. The US is often cited as the benchmark for rigid pavements. Concrete roads were first built in the US a century ago, beginning with a six-mile stretch. That multiplied to 11,000 miles in 20 years. It is interesting to note that in the US, the growth of automobiles is correlated strongly with the growth of concrete roads. Today concrete roads link the countrys west coast on the Pacific Ocean with the east coast on the Atlantic. In a country where petroleum prices are much cheaper than in India, it is cement rather than bitumen/asphalt that is the chosen paving material. The case for concrete obviously does not need to be proved in the US. Concrete roads make up more than half of their roads.