Politics of potholes

The BMC harks back to the Raj in its ‘divide and rule’ policy

I am obeisant to the British for giving us (as in Mumbaikars) tremendously good services – roads, railways, the postal service, and most importantly, a very good public transport system. In addition, I have high regard for the lovely architecture they left behind, including the Victoria Terminus, now renamed Chatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus.

Having paid my respects, I will now accept that we Indians seemed to have picked some of the worst of the angrez rules. First being the divide and rule policy – just look around, we have capitalised on it galore. The other being the politics of roads, which we have stretched to include potholes.

You may ask what the basis is for my allegation. I don’t know whether Mumbaikars remember their class XI English textbook. I have still kept it, thanks to one chapter, about how British employed contract labourers, who were Indians, to give them
employment as menial labourers.

That is why I said the divide and rule policy and the politics of roads go hand in hand. We have smartly used it for potholes now. The chapter talked of how the British would lay roads. Their sewage and drainage systems were of international quality. Most of Mumbai’s good sewage systems, whatever little we have left is in South Mumbai, while our planners have simply never given sewage a thought in the suburbs.

Now this lesson says the British officers would plan to dig a road, employ Indian labourers and keep them occupied on it. As the project would near its end, the same officers would allow the utility services to come in and dig up that same road.
This time, the payment to re-lay the road would be made by the utility service, and not the British government. This rigmarole would continue and the officers would employ same number of labourers for various jobs, paid for by different

Cut to today, and the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), whose budget of Rs10,000 crore, is more than that of small states like Goa. The labourers for road repair and construction are employed by contractors, and not by the BMC. Hence the BMC has saved thousands of crores of rupees. The contractor also has the responsibility to undertake road repairs. And if you thought contractors were a slimy bunch, think again. These nouveau riche men arrive in swanky cars, sporting the arrogance of their class. They arrive with leather briefcases and pouches loaded with money. They are accompanied by knowledgeable English-speaking Public Relations personnel, who can give Power Point presentations.

These contractors hound officers in every nook and cranny of the BMC’s corridors. They lobby hard for contracts. Some among these are the blacklisted contractors, who come to the officers in an attempt to get themselves re-listed!

Once the contract is rewarded, usually to the lowest bidder, he is supposed to have a utility map. I recently did a story on how we in Mumbai still do not have a utility map of our city. So neither the officer nor the contractor knows what lies beneath the road they are digging! The basic requirement for any urban city is its maps. They let the contractor know which utility service is lying below the road, because if any get damaged then these roads will have to be re-dug and re-laid. That means escalating costs. Yes, there is a clause for delays and the fines thereafter. But action is rarely taken.

So we often see workers digging a road, laying it, then, within days, some others, or the same ones, come to dig it up again. Now potholes occur because of such negligence. Holes created by extremely poor quality tar or concrete.

The BMC’s defence is that the number of vehicles, far outnumber the capacity of these roads.

But the basic problem lies in the fact that there is no one to check the quality of the roads: Samples are not taken by officials; the local corporators do not ensure the contractor has fulfilled all the norms. The vicious cycle then continues. Some citizen groups have become alert and have taught the BMC a lesson by sending the material used for road construction to laboratories. But until something is done, we simply suffer the vicious cycles… all the while watching tax payers’ money crushed under tyres.

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