It is early morning in rural Nabinagar, 122km from Dhaka, and the narrow bitumen paved road that connects with the district town snakes through the rice fields and passes small homesteads. Young girls in blue and green school dresses and colourful backpacks are riding on battery rickshaws to school. Their animated conversation and happy laughter break the morning calm. It has become easier for them to commute to school because of this tree-lined road. Their rickshaws are often overtaken by small trucks carrying agricultural products to the market or construction materials to rural sites.
But the travel for the girls or the truck drivers is not as easy as it should have been because the roads are without repair and have broken down with large potholes and washed away bitumen, exposing the mudbase.
In the last three years, 12,170km of new roads have been paved while only 24,600km of old roads have been renovated. Hence, 1.20 lakh kilometres of roads remain out of maintenance in three years.
For one kilometre of rural road, Tk85,790 has been allocated on average in the current fiscal year for repair, maintenance and renovation. If priority roads listed by upazila local government offices are taken into account, the allocation is Tk36.78 lakh per km.
Yet, the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) engineers, scrutinising demand sheets from its 20 regional offices across the country, argue that they need five times the amount allocated in the annual budget to complete the repair work on listed roads and keep all rural roads usable.
According to LGED data, some 1.56 lakh km out of the vast network of 3.73 lakh km of roads under the agency are paved roads.
Experts point to low quality of work, use of substandard materials, irregular maintenance among others as the main reasons that leave most of the rural roads navigable and increase the cost of repair.
The result is rural life and economy, which thrived over the decades on rapid expansion of paved roads connecting villages with towns, are paying the price; their mobility has slowed down and businesses are facing additional time and cost in transportation.
Paved roads have made life faster for users and easier for rickshaw- and van-pullers, who are switching to mechanised transports. But most of the rural roads have turned so bad that they are almost inaccessible by automobiles, causing woes for drivers and passengers.
Vehicles plying these roads get damaged quickly. The repair cost of vehicles increases and vehicle owners hike fares, which then drive up the cost of transportation of goods, said locals.
"Pickup vans often refuse to ply the road from district town to Aruail Bazar in Sarail. Those who agree charge Tk1,500 to Tk2,000 more per trip," says Jabed al-Hasan, who brings rod, cement and corrugated tin for his shop.
Several parts of the road from the district town to Nabinagar have crumbled. Large potholes dot the road from Pairtala to Krishnanagar.
Haresh Mia, an autorickshaw driver, feels the pain of potholes on Pairtala to Krishnanagar in Brahmanbaria's Nabinagar upazila. "Driving on this road causes back pain. It takes more time to cover a short distance. Vehicle parts do not last. As a result, I have to charge extra fares from passengers," he describes the hazards he goes through every day.
Nearly half of the country's 3.73 lakh km rural road network is not yet paved now, and these roads turn unusable in the rainy season as deep mud – often knee-deep – turn the roads impassable.
"No wholesalers now come to our areas to procure paddy, vegetables, or fish, because if any vehicle enters this unpaved road, it would get bogged down in the mud and won't be able to return," said Rubel Hossain, an auto-van driver of Bheempur village in Naogaon, who keeps his vehicle in the market 2km away from his home.
His father, who has grown old now, has heard for 30 years that this road would be paved and Rubel is hearing the same now.
Khalid bin Sayeed, a resident of Berebari of Dhunot upazila in Bogura, jokes as he describes how the Sonahata-Bagbari road looks like during the rainy season. "You will have the rare view of waves on the road," he says, stating why transports carrying merchandise are not coming to his area now.
After first-hand inspections, The Business Standard's correspondents from Kushtia, Brahmanbaria, Cumilla, Sylhet, Bandarban, Lakshmipur, Bogura, Moulvibazar and Naogaon report that many LGED roads have not been repaired for years. As a result, rural communication infrastructure has become unusable.
The Sualak-Lama internal road in Bandarban district town has remained closed since it was damaged by floods in August and not yet been repaired, forcing locals to travel through Chattogram's Lohagara and Amirabad as an alternative route.
Men Rao Mro Karbari of Tongkabati union says, "Due to the damaged roads, local people are not able to take their produced goods to the local markets. This is a major problem in marketing agricultural products along with transportation."
The 10km Debidwar-Rasulpur road in Cumilla has been lying unusable for more than three years. In some places, the road's bitumen carpeting has vanished while the rest is covered in potholes. At least 50,000 people travel on this road daily while using it.
A local man named Shariful Islam says, "It now takes more than an hour to reach Debidwar Sadar Rasulpur which should not take more than 20 minutes."
The rural road network started taking an improved shape mainly in the 1990s, and played a key role in transforming the social and economic landscape in Bangladesh's villages, connecting them to district and upazila towns, schools, health facilities, rural growth centres, union headquarters, local markets and farms.
Fuel and battery-run vehicles replaced manually-pulled vehicles, relieving people of physical labour and reducing travel time greatly.
A majority of the paved roads in the country's rural areas are in a dilapidated condition and people who use these roads for daily commutes and transport of agricultural goods bear the brunt of countless potholes and worn-out pavements every day.
According to a government evaluation report, only 40% of the paved roads are in good and fair shape while 60% turned bad over the past few years due to floods, rains and an overall lack of maintenance. Even though about 48% of these roads were in good condition a year ago.
Transport experts believe that rural roads have become unusable due to faulty design, use of substandard construction materials, poor supervision and corruption during construction, floods, rains and other natural disasters, and reluctance to renovate.
LGED officials, however, point fingers to the inadequate allocation for renovation of the roads. In the fiscal 2022-23, Tk3,000 crore was allocated to LGED for road maintenance, of which Tk200 crore was not disbursed, while Tk3,200 crore was allocated this fiscal year.
LGED officials said several cyclones including Amphan and Bulbul, floods in Sylhet and Rangpur divisions last year, and floods in Rangpur and Chattogram divisions this year damaged several thousand kilometres of rural roads. But only 8,500 kilometres of roads were repaired in FY23.
In FY22, the agency had repaired 8,100km of roads. LGED wants to repair 7,743km to 8,700km of roads in the current financial year. As such, only 5.18% of the total roads are being repaired annually.
As allocation always trails the demand by a huge margin, the LGED asks its upazila and district offices to provide priority lists of roads to be maintained.
What LGED says
LGED considers the poor availability of funding as one of the major challenges behind the lack of maintenance of rural infrastructure. The agency also identified the development of the quality of construction work, enhancing transparency and accountability as challenges.
Sheikh Mohammad Mohsin, the chief engineer of LGED, told TBS that the allocation for the LGED remained far lower than needed to keep all of the rural roads in top shape.
Anowar Hossain, superintending engineer (Road Maintenance Section) of the LGED, said the combined demand for resources by 20 regional offices of the LGED is at least five times higher than the actual allocation. That is why the upazila and district office provide a priority list of roads to be maintained.
Most of LGED's 2,080 km paved road in Brahmanbaria is now a cause of suffering for the locals.
Brahmanbaria LGED Executive Engineer M Abdul Mannan said, "We will need Tk120 crore to repair the damaged roads. Only Tk50 crore have been allocated in the current financial year. With that money, 50% of the road can be repaired."
Ashraf Jamil, a senior assistant engineer of Cumilla LGED, told TBS that in the current fiscal year, more than 100 road repair tenders have been published with 22 notices.
Stating that an allocation of Tk250 crore has been requested, he said that if the allocation is received, the work on all these roads will start soon.
Half of the 6,000 km of roads under Bogura LGED are paved and repairing at least 1,000km of paved roads has become a necessity.
In the last financial year, about 350 km of roads were repaired in Bogura, but this time, the allocation for repairing 200 km of roads has been approved yet, according to Bogura LGED Executive Engineer Golam Morshed.
Lakshmipur LGED office said work orders were given after inviting tenders for repairing 250 km of roads in the last fiscal year but the contractors could not even do 20% of the work as construction materials costs have increased drastically.
Kamalnagar upazila LGED Engineer Sohel Anwar said about 50 kilometres of LGED road in the upazila is in bad shape. In the current financial year, the allocation for repairing 18.5km of road has been sought, but funding was approved for repairing 8 km.
The situation in Sylhet is no good either.
Last year, floods in Sylhet damaged the 438 km of LGED's paved roads. LGED officials said it will take about Tk500 crore to rebuild all these damaged infrastructures. The renovation work is not being done due to lack of allocation.
LGED Sylhet Office Senior Assistant Engineer AKM Sahidul Islam told TBS, "In the last financial year, we repaired 175 km of roads. There will be some repairs in this financial year as well. Even then, some roads will remain in a dilapidated state as there is a funding crunch," he added.
Shrimp farmer Asgar Ali of Satkhira's Kaliganj narrates how a bad road doubled the cost of transporting fry from the town in his enclosure in Shyamnagar as pickup vans are charging high citing damage.
Farmers are not getting fair prices as they cannot bring vegetables to market in time due to poor road conditions," said Abdur Rahim, general secretary of Sultanpur kitchen market in Satkhira.
What do experts say?
Professor Dr Shamsul Haque, a transport expert and Director of Buet's Accident Research Institute, said, "A large part of the country's economic growth in the last decade has come from the rural areas and the main life force of the rural economy is the LGED roads. These roads play a major role in the trade and marketing of agricultural products."
"Due to agricultural mechanisation, power tillers, harvesters, excavators, fisheries and dairy trucks, trucks carrying heavy machinery including bricks, cement, sands, and electrification poles are now entering the rural areas," he said, adding that most the rural roads were constructed in an unplanned manner and do not have the strength to endure so much load.
There are roads which have not been repaired for the last 15 years. Huge potholes have been formed on some of the roads, causing immense suffering to commuters. When it rains, these roads become nearly unusable by motor vehicles due to puddles.
Roads turn worse when they need uplift
Though in a disintegrating state, there are paved roads for most village people in the country, according to the Rural Access Index (RAI) which measures the proportion of the rural population who live within 2km of an all-season road.
According to the World Bank's RAI, in 2015, about 86.7% of village people had access to paved roads within two kilometres of their residence. The rate rose slightly to 88% in the last fiscal year.
Other than the upazilas in haor (waterbody), wetland and hilly areas, this rate is more than 90% according to a document of the General Economics Division (GED) of the Planning Commission. More than 70,000 villages out of 87,223 are well connected.
The LGED now feels that rural roads have served their primary purposes, now they need to be upgraded to meet future needs.
The new LGED Road Design Standard has planned for increasing traffic pressure on rural roads, which can be used to design and build the roads for the next 20 years, Monzur Sadeque, project director of "My Village – My Town," the forward-looking government project, told TBS earlier.