In a dramatic turn of events on Monday, hundreds of citizens from the Vasai-Virar region, along with Congress party workers, brought traffic to a standstill at the Khaniwade toll plaza on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway. The protest was a response to what they described as substandard road work and alleged corruption in the project.

The demonstrators were outraged by what they considered to be “shoddy” concretisation efforts on the highway. They believe that the recent upgrades, instead of improving road conditions, have made travel dangerous. As part of their protest, they stopped the collection of tolls for five hours, voicing their dissatisfaction with the ongoing roadwork.

Sameer Vartak, the head of the environment cell of the state Congress unit, played a leading role in the protest. He questioned the necessity of the white-topping project, pointing out that the previous asphalt road was in decent condition and capable of handling the traffic flow. “Thousands of motorists and bikers use this 35km stretch daily between Ghodbunder Road and Palghar. Unfortunately, the poorly managed concretisation work, combined with a lack of proper traffic management, has resulted in numerous accidents. Over the past six months alone, around 100 people have lost their lives,” Vartak stated.

The protesters demanded an immediate review of the project, emphasizing the need for action to improve the quality of work and traffic management. They highlighted a recent incident where four trucks sank into the road after heavy rain caused the soil around some newly laid culverts to wash away. Although National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) officials patched up the damaged sections and managed to streamline traffic flow, the protesters felt these measures were too little, too late.

Sumit Kumar, the NHAI manager for the Thane region, shed some light on the challenges faced during the roadwork. “To ensure efficient and quality work, we ideally need three lanes available. However, we don’t have that luxury. People often remove the barricades, leading to heavy traffic that damages the freshly laid white-topping. Additionally, trucks carrying concrete need to reach the site within one-and-a-half hours, but traffic jams are making this difficult,” he explained.

The ambitious Rs 553-crore project aims to white-top a 120km stretch of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway. This extensive plan includes constructing six underpasses, ten foot overbridges, service lanes, crash barriers, and addressing 17 accident-prone spots. The initiative was launched following a survey that indicated the old asphalt layer was deteriorating and needed replacement.

Despite the setbacks and challenges, NHAI is pushing to complete the project by April next year. Currently, about 40% of the work is done, but the protest by locals indicates a significant dissatisfaction with the pace and quality of the work so far.

The protesters’ primary concern is safety. They believe the current road conditions are hazardous and that the ongoing construction is exacerbating the problem rather than resolving it. Many feel that their voices have not been heard, and their frustrations boiled over into Monday’s protest.

The demonstration at the Khaniwade toll plaza was not just a spontaneous outburst but a well-coordinated effort to draw attention to the pressing issues. For the residents of Vasai-Virar and the surrounding areas, this stretch of the highway is a crucial part of their daily commute. They argue that their lives and safety are being compromised due to what they perceive as negligent handling of the roadworks.

In response to the protest, local authorities and NHAI officials have promised to look into the concerns raised by the protesters. There is a sense of urgency to address these issues before they escalate further. However, the protesters remain skeptical, demanding more than just assurances.

The protest at Khaniwade toll plaza has brought to light the critical need for better planning and execution in infrastructure projects. As the April deadline for the completion of the highway upgrade looms, the focus will now be on how quickly and efficiently the NHAI can address the issues raised by the residents and ensure a safer, smoother highway for all.