Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Whose right-of-way is this?

While walking the streets in Indian cities, I keep wondering whom does the right of way (ROW) in this country belong to. ROW is the distance between two property lines across the road which varies from 6m to 60m depending on the road type. ROW is supposed to be owned, developed and maintained by the government or any party commissioned by the government.

The roads in urban areas are categorized into arterial, sub-arterial, collector (or distributor) and local. Arterial and sub-arterial are major roads, often constituting the national or state highway network. Local roads provide accessibility to residential buildings while collector roads move the traffic from local to sub-arterial/arterial roads. The term ‘street’ in this article is used to denote collector and local roads which provide accessibility to residents. All roads within cities are developed and managed by the Development Authority/Municipal Corporation or any other local governing body.

Whatever might be the administrative arrangement, the ground reality is that there is no owner for urban streets in India. Every few hundred meters in inhabited areas, you encounter a speed breaker which is certainly not built by any government body. Anyone who feels the need of a speed breaker in front of his/her property can do so without having to seek any permission. No-one knows what technical standards are being followed to build these speed breakers of varying height and hardness. Every now and then, there is an accident due to these deadly speed breakers which are built overnight. The maintenance cost of vehicles is also increased significantly.

Section of a typical residential street
In absence of any regulation, residents generously occupy the road space for their access ramps, gardens and storing construction material. Personal vehicles are parked as if the residents have purchased the road space as well. Not more than 50% of the right of way is available for vehicles (forget about pedestrians who are treated as unwanted elements in our cities!) to move. The sight of two vehicles having a tough time in passing each other has become such a common phenomenon that it does not even bother us anymore. Barring city centers, toll roads and some posh localities of VVIPs, the state of affairs is the same everywhere.

The situation is not much different on most of the arterial and sub-arterial roads, especially when there are commercial activities along the road. These roads have all kinds of activities happening on space along the carriageway (the paved section on which the vehicles move). It is common practice in India to not complete the entire section of the ROW at once, leaving the area besides the carriageway unpaved. This paves the way for easy encroachment.

Section of Gopalpura Bypass, near Jaipur-Ajmer
In Jaipur, on the 60m wide Gopalpura Bypass road near Ajmer-Jaipur Expressway, a number of motor repairing shops have mushroomed in recent years. The reason is that more than 2/3rd of the unpaved road space along the carriageway is available without any charge to these shops. As a result, the sideways of this road are full of multi-axle trucks, parked haphazardly, encroaching into the carriageway space and creating congestion during peak hours.

Clearing encroachment has become the most difficult task if any new project (Metro or Bus Rapid Transit) has to be implemented. It has resulted in cost and time overrun for projects. Clearing encroachment has never been an easy task due to vested interests of various stakeholders and often resulted in protests and litigations. Instead of clearing encroachment, government should make efforts not to let it happen at the first place. It can be done by taking charge of the complete right of way and not just the carriageway. Government should make its presence felt to the citizens as the owner of the ROW and can up with innovative solutions for maintenance.

Narrow roads can be orderly too
The private sector can be viewed a potential partner. The city can be divided into smaller areas (postal codes areas could also be considered) for ease of implementation. If the government is able to remove the encroachment, the private sector can be invited to develop the ROW with provision of parallel parking alongside the road for residents on a chargeable basis. Parking lots can also be identified. Other stream of revenues for private sector can also be identified to make these projects financially viable. The involvement of private sector will ensure regular monitoring which is lacking currently.

Under the Smart City Mission, the government is planning to develop 100 cities as smart cities by 2020. Mobility is one of the key components of a smart city. Mobility issues are difficult to address till the government takes complete charge of ROW. We can have smart solutions for addressing multiple issues that cause congestion and can help streamline the traffic but till the time the ROW is strictly owned by the government, other solutions may not bring the intended outcomes.

Note: The author is a transportation professional. She can be reached at The views expressed are personal. 


  1. Dear author, your article has been very well conceived, written and addresses practical issue in Indian cities. I have following thoughts:
    (i) Local self-governments must devise a proper monitoring mechanism for construction permits and practices.
    (ii) Political patronage of such city planning rules violations must end in making our cities livable.
    (iii) Community policing on such practices to be promoted in case local-self governments have limited manpower for monitoring.
    Congratulations for highlighting very important issue which is of governance, building permission, and moral duties.

  2. It is the job of the municipal bodies and the police to make sure that the Right Of Way is maintained or 'sustained' as the Right Of Way only. Unfortunately, these two setups are themselves corrupt, callous, laid back, and in fact hands in glove. You lodge a complaint and you land in deep trouble. Indians are hugely disorganised, very immoral, quite shameless, are educated idiots, or idiots anyway, and so on. If you point out to a resident about the encroachment, e.g., then this criminal preaches you about 'Community Feeling'! Can you believe that? If you complain to the authorities they actually look carefully at the written text of the complaint and deliberately find a word or phrase or sentence and then 'extract' it and then quote something else out of context and the complaint is sent to a different department and then phoosh. Alternatively they give a bogus or vague or simply dishonest response. And there is no simple way to chargesheet them, though you can do it if you pursue. They also have their connected mafia. They'll try to 'take you out'. So the answer is to have marshalls appointed by the public themselves which can pull up these authorities and the police at every level, 'at every level'.
    I can go on about the corruption of the corrupt and the travails of the upright but I guess we all know it.