SOS – Stranded On Shiradi

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When I recently read a report on Mangalorean.com regarding the hazards of the road strip near Sakleshpur on the Shiradi Ghats, I remembered my recent experience as well as the memory of 16 years of using this route for traveling between Mangalore and Bangalore. I could choose not to write and keep quiet, like several people do in India who are not very sure whether it can make any impact on the authorities. But I have written this in full detail, hoping that someday there will be a change, so that the people regularly using the route are benefited in some way or the other. For me its just once or twice a year, but for many others, it’s a daily affair. Daily despair.


As this picturesque strip of Western Ghats is making the news for all the wrong reasons, I regretfully present here the sad story of loss of thousands of man hours and several litres of valuable fuel. What is now a common phenomena, the National Highway (NH) 48 now offers very little in terms of comforts for the users of this very important highway. Looking at the basic amenities missing here makes one wonder about the veracity of the claim that our government is currently putting in place quadrilateral road projects across the country.


Also, we remember the slogans of "India Shining", which makes one wonder "where exactly?" The excellent economic growth achieved by the country in recent years is too broad to define I guess, does not turn into comforts for the common man. Achieving nuclear self sufficiency and space research are required for a large country like India, but don’t we also deserve some basic amenities?


Good qualities of a prospering economy are demonstrated by the comforts available to the citizen. Infrastructure, health care, good quality education and shelter as a few of those desirable things. While corruption cannot be ruled out from the political systems of the world (even the most developed countries are known to have succumbed to the lure of money), what separates good governance with the bad is the infrastructure and living conditions of the masses.


That was the night of 5th July…


Our routine night bus journey from Bangalore to Mangalore first set a record, which was then broken on my return trip on the night of 14th July. A distance of 370 km normally takes not more than 8 hours and this time it took 16 hours. The buses and the trucks plying between these two most important cities of Karnataka, came to a grinding halt, at around 2 am.


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I tried to figure out the possible reasons for this unscheduled halt, while dosing on my seat. Are we being looted, as was so common in the 80’s? Or, is the driver taking a quick nap because he felt too sleepy to continue driving? Or is there some problem with the bus ? such as tyre, engine, fuel problems? Any massive ever-green forest tree decided to sleep across the highway? Or any accident? What is it?


Many were asleep and so were not bothered to check what had happened ? at least till early morning. Then I overheard the bus crew saying that a bus had broken down. Result? Over 300 buses (both way) and several other trucks and tankers all stranded, not able to move an inch. Stranded in this beautiful and picturesque part of Western Ghats. Stranded in this dangerous strip of land where several accidents and several crimes have taken place in the past. Stranded to enjoy the bounties of nature, through the ever-pouring rain.


At around 5.30 am, I decided to get down from the bus to enjoy a bit of rain (it was raining incessantly throughout the night) and to see what the real problem was, and all that I could see was a long trail of buses and trucks ? both in front of our bus and behind. And no solution was in sight. As the broken down bus was perhaps quite a distance away, I had no idea of what could perhaps be a solution and when?


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A long queue of Trucks.. Mining, Petroleum, with perishable goods..you name them.


In this perspective, and before proceeding further, I feel it wise to say a few words about my visit to Malaysia just the previous week. After that trip and before embarking on this routine journey, I spent 4 days in Bangalore and I was singing praises with my friends about Malaysia, a developing country much like India but much smaller and as poor, yet possessing excellent infrastructure ? the roads and the rails. It actually took us 60 minutes to cover 75 km trip by bus on a 4 lane drive way from Kuala Lumpur to Genting Highlands, a place situated at an elevation as much as our Sakleshpur (both at around 3,400 feet above sea level). Genting is like a paradise created on top of the mountain! Just imagine building 4 to 5 of Bangalore’s finest commercial centres, 3-4 big hotels, several restaurants and 2 amusement parks all in Sakleshpur? Genting is nothing but this plus a 4.3 km long cable car ropeway carrying over 100 cable cars! And access from the nearest main and busy city Kuala Lumpur? Just one hour drive and throughout the drive, you will come across a lot of activity. Someone there in Malaysia is using their heads?


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National Highway 48 ? one more view


OK, back to Sakleshpur. Our bus, like all other stranded buses, was on a standby mode, not moving an inch for about 6 hours of the glorious raining night.  Fortunately, the queue formed was orderly, and overtaking vehicles, if any, which could have blocked the waiting traffic further, were immediately stopped by some agile drivers.


And our bus crew told us that it’s a regular story. No father, no mother for this road they said. Hazardous potholes, narrow turns. Each time, there was a different reason for stoppages. And then it became a time for a free chat, free suggestions, free finger pointing for some interested passengers who joined in with the bus crew. Narrow road in very poor condition, no emergency services, no police?their story went on. I thought in my mind: No highway authority at all! Be it for traffic, civil or criminal purposes, throughout the entire stretch (around 25 kms). No? nothing. What a shame. On one side, there was glorious nature created by God. And in between? All this mess.


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Another view of the amount of traffic on this narrow strip called NH48


I picked up my camera and set on work. Click, click, click?what you see is just a part of the story, because I don’t have a Google-camera that could capture all the 150 buses stranded one way, another 150 stranded on the other together with all the mine trucks, goods carriers and oil tankers. Must have been about 500 vehicles in all. We were sure that at least 2 hours were needed just to clear this stranded traffic whenever the problem would ultimately be solved.


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As narrow as it gets! This is a national highway, my dear


Among the bus passengers in discomfort was a family that had traveled from the US, who after visiting the gentleman’s house in Bangalore, set out to see his wife’s people in Mangalore. The kids were restless for sure. My children were fast asleep, not bothered to know what was happening outside. We developed a nice little conversation with this Mangalorean-US family and could even link them to one of the regular Mangalorean.com surfer! (I must say that this halt gave an opportunity to make friendship with one more Indian family ? something for my positive attitude!)


By the way, what was the problem really? Very simple and this is what irked me. No one can avoid a traffic jam due to any major accident, but this one? A bus coming from Mangalore climbing up a turn on the hill had its wheels jammed (perhaps that is a layman’s explanation for the real technical problem), and had stopped diagonally across the one-lane-each-way road. That is the narrowest it can get. Perhaps a 60 feet road. Narrower than the by-lanes of some countries. Developing countries like Thailand and Malaysia for example. There was no space on either side, being wet soil due to heavy rains and thickly vegetated deep slope, for any 4 or 6 wheeler to go past this stuck bus.


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The one that caused the strife at 2 am, was ultimately moved to one side by police at around 8am.


Ultimately, at 7.30 am, we could see two policemen walking down and a police jeep going past our bus, perhaps coming down from Sakleshpur. We must thank the police for coming to our rescue at least in the morning. There is nothing going to happen if they don’t come. Governments wont fall. Heads wont roll. No one is accountable here. The police who had come for the rescue managed to move the bus straighter so that at least one way was cleared. After about one hour, stranded vehicles started to move, in small installments. I think it must have taken over 2 hours to clear the last waiting vehicle. We were fortunately a little ahead in the line. We reached Mangalore at 2 pm. Obviously there was no desire for break fast when the bus stopped at the next available Hotel after resuming its downward journey and lunch at home became much more tastier with the relief and hunger.


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The ones who ultimately did something to save further losses.


During the stranded time in no-man’s land, only one mobile service worked. BSNL. That was because this government owned mobile company has its towers placed even in the remotest places, especially on the railway tracks. The only BSNL mobile was with our driver who allowed us to send SOS (Stranded On Shiradi) message to our waiting relatives down in Mangalore. Thanks to his big heart. I felt sad for him and for his clan, because these are the men doing a thankless job. Taking care of so many lives, losing their life balance, sometimes driving continuously for double shifts. Sometimes without seeing their family for days or weeks together.


I just tried counting the man hours lost. 35 seats per bus, 300 buses (both ways), 8 hours delay. That’s a whopping 84,000 man hours! Just for one night! And all the diesel burnt for keeping the engine on (if switched off, in inclement weather, the engine wont start and that could be another reason for getting stuck)? my accounting abilities are not sufficient to make this estimate. I leave it to the readers.


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Patience pays? See them line up and wait patiently


Returning back to Bangalore 10 days later, the 10pm bus reached at 6 o’clock next day. Not in the morning, but evening. Taking a clear 20 hours! My 10 day old record was already broken. And perhaps some others had set a record only to be broken later. This time, I don’t wish to calculate the man hours lost. 12 extra free comfortable hours in the bus. This time the reason was different. An oil tanker which had slid sideways two nights earlier was still not removed, slowing down the traffic completely. So, instead of a complete halt this time around, the traffic was moving at less than 3 kms per hour ? it took 4 hours to cover 10 km between Nellyadi and Shiradi. It may seem strange for readers, but this is true ? 100 cents a dollar.


Positively speaking, at the next nearest halt in the morning (around 8.30 am) for breakfast, I could capture this beautiful Crane stretching its neck, sitting on a cut tree. Perhaps it was wondering what these men and machines were up to? Some kind of a procession? And I did not have any interest to catch the same buses, same trucks once again on my Canon Powershot AS 700.


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And India shines, unmindful of the utter chaos people go through, day in day out and the politicians ensure they make statements at the election time and update bank statements at all other times. I am sure they know the solutions, but no one is really bothered.


Can they at least establish police outposts for every 3 kms on this 25 km dangerous stretch of Shiradi Ghats? Can they at least keep a mobile Crane that could be used to clear road blocks. I think, asking for broader roads, is too much for our authorities to provide. Because, the Authorities are busy at work! Don’t disturb them…


They are changing names of towns and cities, erecting statues for past leaders or Gods, renaming roads and circles, and laying foundation stones for never-to-be built projects.

Author: Agnel Pereira- Bahrain


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