Here lies a city that died of ‘pothole rash’

BBMP has not filled most of the potholes in the city, despite High Court dead line set on 31st October, Pothole seen at KH Road (Dabble Road) and Lalbagh road junction in Bengaluru on Wednesday. Photo by S K Dinesh

Surprisingly, New York City’s busiest streets, the Broadway and 3rd Avenue, have something in common with Bengaluru’s streets — potholes, that exist due to the heavy vehicle and traffic volumes, and vociferous citizens of pothole-plagued streets loudly complaining all the time. In fact, “stubborn” potholes plague NYC residents and repeated complaints are the norm. Pothole patchwork obviously doesn’t hold up forever and most sites have to be repaired over and over again.

But, while winter is the prime season for pothole formation in NYC, when groundwater freezes and thaws beneath the pavement, Bengaluru roads suffer maximum damage during the monsoons. Post-monsoon, the number of roads in Bengaluru with no potholes can be counted on your fingertips. Barring some roads, which have been white-topped newly and some TenderSURE roads, almost every road has potholes.

Bengaluru’s roads are mostly uneven due to the slipshod manner in which they were laid in the first place. Beneath the road surface are haphazard water and sewerage connections with clogged or non-existent stormwater drains, which cause water stagnation on the roads.

To top it all, you have OFC (optic fibre cable) operators, BWSSB, Bescom, GAIL, and even private individuals cutting roads all the time to fix leaking sewage and water pipelines, adding electricity lines, or roguishly laying OFC. When a road is dug up by one of these entities and repaired, it is immediately dug up by another!

Add to this the 70 lakh vehicles registered in the city traversing limited road space, the sheer density of vehicles is sufficient to damage roads. Any one of these reasons would have been bad enough to ruin the roads, but together, they are the “perfect storm” that leaves us with a messy web of potholes.

Enveloping all of this is brazen corruption. Everywhere, in the material used to build or repair roads, bid-fixing, usage of substandard and adulterated material, the people who call the shots leave a lot to be desired.

Helpless citizens have resorted to bizarre means to draw attention to potholes. In HSR Layout, residents performed “pothole pooja” and conducted the “last rites” of a Main Road, which had “died” due to crater-sized potholes. Officialdom did not lag behind either. During a meeting of the BBMP, it was suggested that a separate department be created with a ‘Chief Engineer – Potholes’. The deputy chief minister, on his part, announced that a citizen only had to report a pothole for it to be fixed “immediately”. Citizens reported potholes, and some of them did get fixed!

It was a PIL that triggered a unique response to the pothole problem. The Karnataka High Court rapped the BBMP on the matter. Directions from the court forced BBMP officials to swing into action and the process of filling potholes gained momentum, forcing them to file affidavits detailing the number of potholes filled. Measurement books of the work being executed were to be tracked and submitted to court. The very same officials started working overnight and were being constantly updated with pictures of filled potholes sent in from the sites.

Accusations of slipshod work, however, began pouring in, with the BBMP resorting to cosmetic methods to fill potholes in the rush to meet the high court’s deadline. The craters would start reappearing after a mild shower following the BBMP’s ‘micro-milling’ method of repair, where a milling machine completely removes the pothole by grinding and then fills the surface with asphalt.

This can only be deemed as patchwork repair and would result in the tar wearing out very soon. Given its limited budget for road maintenance, the BBMP over-relies on using the contractor’s defect liability period to repair newly built roads and also on the judicious use of the ‘Python’, an automated pothole-filling machine.

Judicial intervention seems to be the only recourse in the days to come. It requires the court to ask the BBMP to do its work, to make officials, who do not do their duty, answerable and to question the quality of repair. The BBMP has been asked to make all work contracts for construction and maintenance of roads available on its websites, thereby increasing accountability.

With its already sullied reputation for technical incompetence and for the nexus amongst its corporators, engineers and contractors, the BBMP looks comfortable responding to court directives. Reacting to judicial directives absolves them of being answerable to intra-departmental vigilance and questioning. All decisions can now be attributed to the court.

No way has the overall pothole situation got any better -- even the hurried work done to avoid court reprimand only shows why the BBMP makes such poor use of taxpayers’ money. Despite the brouhaha, the court appointed military engineer encountered pipelines and protrusions on the road, lower bitumen content, and observed a hurried and haphazard manner of pothole-filling operation. Bengaluru’s road users, we have a long haul ahead!

(The writer is a former director on the Board of BEML)

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Here lies a city that died of ‘pothole rash’

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