Pothole filling BBMP's big coverup?

The chief minister has just handed the BBMP a major task of filling up 15,935 potholes across Bengaluru in just 15 days. It will be just an impossible task, whether it is hot mix, cold mix or white topping that the BBMP is likely to take up. In the process, politicians, contractors and officials make money, leaving the residents to their fate, even as deaths due to potholes continue to mount.  Aknisree Karthik reports.

The city may have been deluged by wet weather and seen its roads turn into near mud tracks in places as a result, but now it’s raining promises with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah assuring Bengalureans that the 15,935 potholes on city roads – the number the BBMP officials have arrived at – will be filled in  15 days.

Officials have been warned to meet the deadline or face action. But whether the Chief Minister has taken the weather into account when giving this ultimatum, is anybody’s guess.  Going by the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre the city is likely to receive heavy rain right upto October 20, which does not augur well for officials trying to  repair the city roads as all their efforts could get washed away.

Observes  Mr D S Rajashekar, president, Citizens' Action Forum with sarcasm, "The Chief Minister has set enough deadlines, not just for potholes, but for  projects like the Hennur flyover, Indira Canteens, the Kempegowda Layout site sharing and so on, but they are not met and then he gives another deadline. It is impossible to fill potholes in 15 days. Even if officials try to fill some in an adhoc manner,  they are sure to be washed away in the rains.”

Mr Rajashekar also believes the BBMP has greatly under estimated the number of potholes in the city. "If we go by the BBMP, there are only 15,935 potholes in the city, which has 15,000 kms of road. Roughly put it this works out to only one pothole for every kilometer of road, which is impossible. The BBMP should get its basics right first," he stresses.

The civic activist rightly wonders why no road contractor has been penalised or blacklisted for not maintaining the roads as required. “This only means there is no accountability and  that  there is a cartel at work. Today's contractors become tomorrow's corporators, who in turn become MLAs and then eventually Ministers. It’s a vicious circle,” he adds with regret, stressing that only citizen participation in ward committees can put an end to this sad state of affairs. 

Potholes and cracks on a whitetopped road in Vasanth Nagar

Mayor wants contractors to fill potholesIn a review meeting including elected representatives and officials of BBMP west and south zone, BBMP Mayor Sampath Raj directed officials to make a list of roads which are to be maintained by contractors as per tender and then get them to fill all the potholes on such roads. Directing chief engineers to take up pothole filling on warfoot, he warned that they will be held responsible if they aren't able to fill potholes within the deadline issued by chief minister Siddaramaiah. He said that no specific amount will be released for pothole filling, contractors has to fill it if the roads are within maintenance period and the rest will be filled with BBMP maintenance cost.

‘Contractors don’t adopt standard procedure, materials’There was no arguing with BBMP Commissioner, Manjunath Prasad, as he he stood by the civic body’s claim that the city had only 15,935 potholes when  the improbability was pointed out to him recently by incredulous  experts and ordinary people, who put the figure at a more realistic one lakh.

Coming down hard on the BBMP for its lack of realism , traffic expert and advisor to state government on infrastructure, Prof M N Srihari asks indignantly, "Is Bengaluru the only city in India to receive so much rain ? Even a school child  knows there are many other states and cities that receive more rain than Bengaluru, but do not have have as many potholes."

A pothole on Ambedkar Medical College Road

Giving an example closer to home, he says, "Let’s not go to other states or cities,but to Yeshwanthpur which is within BBMP limits.  Why aren’t there any potholes on the Yeshwanthpur National Highway? Does it rain only on BBMP roads and not on roads laid and maintained by the National Highways Authority of India? The problem is that contractors do not  follow standard procedures or use quality material when laying roads in the city.”

Going by Prof. Srihari as bitumen is costly, contractors often tend to use only two or three per cent of it instead of the required 5.5 per cent when laying roads, and this causes their surfaces to disappear within months of laying them. “Also bitumen and aggregates for asphalt must be heated to 140 degrees and then brought to the location and poured at temperatures not less than 100 degrees. But this process too is hardly followed,” he regrets, lamenting that the contractors get away with everything by simply greasing the hands of the BBMP officials.

As for white topping of roads, which the BBMP believes is the solution to potholes, Prof. Srihari points out that even for such roads to last for 30 years or more, the material used has to be of good quality.  “What's the guarantee that officials will ensure that contractors follow the standard procedures ? Unless and until there is a strong monitoring system  to penalise and blacklist contractors for shoddy work, no white topping will ensure pothole -free roads,” he warns, demanding pertinently, “ Does the city lack pothole- filling technology ? Is there a dearth of engineers who know the right way to fill it ? No. Although engineers are aware of all the procedures, they don’t care to go by the book as if the roads have longevity they cannot  make money in the guise of road re-laying and pothole- filling.”

Bengaluru Development Minister, K. J. George made it clear on Tuesday that all agencies and civil contractors involved would have to meet the deadline set by Chief Minister Siddarmaiah to make the city pothole-free.

Minister K.J George and CM Siddaramaiah inspected the potholes in the city. (Photo: DC)

Speaking to reporters here, he said for the time being the government would concentrate on filling potholes and once the rains ended, it would  asphalt the roads.

Asked about the BJP accusing Mr Siddaramaiah of denotifying BDA land, Mr George retorted that the state government had not 

denotified even one acre of land since assuming power in May 2013. "Let the opposition come up with concrete evidence to prove its allegations instead of making malafide charges against the Chief Minister, " he snapped.

Need far higher allocation of funds to strengthen entire road network in city: Ashwin Mahesh, Urban ExpertWith rain battering the city, the roads have crumbled to the point that many can no longer even be called roads. The inconvenience and traffic snarls caused by poor roads was always high, but now we are starting to see people dying as a result of their deplorable condition. This has finally prompted the government to announce  white-topping of many roads  to strengthen them.

But will white-topping, which involves laying a binding cement on asphalted surfaces of roads, work? Whenever any solution is proposed for a large problem, we need to look at its exact nature, and consider if what has been suggested is right and adequate. We must also consider if the solution presented can cause other problems. We need to go into this for three reasons.

All road contracts include a commitment by the contractor to build them to certain specifications and  maintain them too. But this is usually not enforced even when the original construction is of poor quality as there isn't any mechanism in place for regular inspection of the newly surfaced roads and no corrective intervention is suggested to maintain a minimum quality. What we really need is to correct this as otherwise we'll keep coming back to adhoc interventions.

The arterial network in the city - counting all roads of 80 feet or greater width - is now close to 1000 kms long. This  means that at the  proposed cost of white-topping, only 15 per cent of these roads will benefit, leaving  the majority to be repaired even at the end of this project, which is itself many months away. We need far higher allocation of funds to strengthen the entire network of roads in the city.

And as we have seen  on Kasturba Road, white- topping in a hurry can lead to a situation in which the fundamental design of a road cannot be re-thought. The footpaths remain as they are, inadequate and poorly built. So when white-topping a road, the utilities will need to be properly re-ducted in anticipation of future needs and carriage-ways will have to be made uniform in width along the length of it. In short, strengthening the road surface is not the only goal as there are many other issues involved  and keeping them all in mind is vital.

It is tragic that people are losing their lives as a result of something as avoidable as poor roads. Building and maintaining motorable roads is an old problem in urban life.  For the most part, cities around the world have solved this long ago, and even many Indian cities are ahead of us in this. That should tell us something : we need to strengthen governance first as  that will in turn strengthen the roads.

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