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Sunday, September 23, 2018

"Pothole deaths" - failure of civic bodies

by Proloy Bagchi (writer), Idgah Hills, Bhopal, September 12, 2018

Bad roads have caused a large number of deaths in India. It is all because of incompetent and corrupt municipal bodies

Even the Supreme Court of India has expressed its concern on the “pothole deaths” in the country and observed that number of deaths due to potholes on the roads is more than deaths due to terrorism. A division bench made the observation and directed the Supreme Court Committee on Road Safety to look into the matter. Terming the situation “frightening” the Bench said that those who die in such accidents should be entitled to compensation. The issue arose before the Bench when it was hearing a matter relating to road safety.

We Indians have lived for long with bad roads and pot holes in them. When we were less developed and hence most of us could not afford a motorized vehicle we never really thought that it mattered much. We would either walk across giving the pot hole a wide berth or cycle past it avoiding its treacherous depths. In lightless nights, which many of our towns suffered from not too long ago, the potholes were actually a kind of nightmare. Many a pedestrian broke his ankle and many a cyclist broke his shoulders by becoming victims of this failure of men building roads for the benefit of the citizens.

One recalls that even in childhood one used to see ads of motorcycles or cars made abroad adding that the product was made for Indian road conditions. One did not know what those conditions were but presumed that they were, if anything, bad. Hence, one was told that the product was made sturdier to withstand an unforeseen shock caused by deceptive surfaces. The tyres, their rims and the shock absorbers could get damaged as also misalignment of the steering system might result. The materials used in manufacturing them had to have a high level of tolerance against such sudden and unanticipated hits. Whether this was done or not by the manufacturers is, of course, another matter.

The fact, however, is that we have lived with pot holes all our lives. Whether in mufussil or in metros pot holes have been a part of our lives. Despite allotment and outlays of crores of rupees for laying and relaying of urban roads there has been no respite from potholes. Even the country’s capital or its financial or electronic capitals, Mumbai and Bengaluru, suffer deeply with the menace of potholes. The newspapers are littered with reports and photographs of splitting roads and pot holes therein but hardly any measure is ever taken to provide relief to the people. Things have come to such a stage that even tyre companies exploit bad roads and pot holes to push their products.

After all what exactly is a pot hole? It has been defined as “a structural failure in the road surface due to water in the underlying soil and the traffic passing over it. Water first weakens the underlying soil, traffic then fatigues and breaks the poorly supported asphalt surface area. Continued traffic action ejects both the asphalt and underling soil material to create a hole in the pavement”. One believes that this results from indifferently made roads without due diligence and use of proper material and technique. Besides, road building in India suffers from utter lack scruples as well as supervision. Most of the road-building agencies wink at use of material of indifferent quality short-changing the government or its various subordinate outfits.

The Indian monsoon is generally blamed for broken down roads all over the country. True, water is an enemy of asphalt and the moment it seeps in it starts eating away the roads from underneath. But, it has been argued, that South-East Asian countries which generally have heavier rains do not face the problem of bad roads as we do. Singapore, for instance, has rains every day – sometimes light and sometimes heavy – but its roads hardly ever deteriorate like ours. Of course, all these countries, barring very few, are run very efficiently and, presumably, the repair work is carried out promptly and competently using modern gadgetry. The commuting public, therefore, never face the danger and/or inconvenience from ever-enlarging pot holes as we do.

It is, therefore, a matter of shame for us that our highest court has had to make an observation on bad roads and the casualties that they have caused. Even the national print media has taken note of it but the authorities that matter do not seem to have blinked. These are mostly the local bodies, the municipal corporations or public works departments of the state governments. Significantly, no chief minister of any of the affected states has ever found time to comment on the daily casualties that are caused on the roads by pot holes or even indifferent road engineering. They probably think that it is a matter to be handled by the municipal authorities and hence refrain from making any observation. In Bhopal, for instance, deaths on the roads are reported daily but the chief minister has never tried to ascertain as to why the citizens, generally children in prime of youth, are dying in such large numbers. Likewise, Bengaluru is another city where death-on-the-roads is very common but the state government has hardly ever taken steps to improve matters. Probably, in this matter the colour of the government is not material.

Everyone knows that the road construction agencies like the public works department of the state governments or the civil construction wings of the municipalities are highly corrupt. It is openly said that only around 60% of the amount sanctioned is spent in road construction and the remaining 40% is eaten up by officials, engineers and elected representatives. No wonder the position of a municipal councilor is highly attractive and a five-year term can bring in immense riches for them. It has been noticed that they not only build multiple palatial houses, they also acquire a fleet of vehicles, generally of SUVs. There is, therefore, so much at stake in a municipal councillor’s post for a petty politician. One can imagine the pickings at higher levels if politicians at the lowest tier of our people’s democracy have such a rich harvest from a single 5-year term.

We claim to be on the way to become a super-power. It would be a shame for a super-power to have such miserable basic essential of civilized life as roads. Mao Tse Tung is reported to have said that If “you want prosperity build roads”. But India’s politicians have failed to adhere to this sensible aphorism. They only treated construction activity as a cash cow and made money for themselves and the party to which they belonged. The Madhya Pradesh chief minister had the audacity to broadcast from US that roads in his state were better than those in America and later his son, an aspiring politician, also came out with a supporting statement. Both seem to have been oblivious of road conditions in the capital city and elsewhere in the state where life and costly assets are lost everyday due to bad roads. The losses, if compiled, could be worth crores making a dent on the country’s GDP.

One doesn’t find any hope for improvement in the foreseeable future as drastic changes in the system are necessary. That is unlikely to happen as the changes would be against the interests of the very agents of change – the politicians. Hence, India is going to wallow in muddy and watery pot holes for quite some time which will continue to take precious lives and destroy private and public assets.



About the Writer

Pushing 80 I was born in Gwalior in Central India to parents who were educated in Calcutta, now Kolkata. My father did his master's in English in 1916. He was a professor of English in the then only college in Gwalior. After qualifying in the exams for entry in to central civil services I served the government of India for 34 years reaching the very top of the professional cadres of the Indian Postal Service. I also acted as consultant ion behalf of the Universal Postal Union in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Swaziland.
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