Filling in potholes is merely first-aid; the real treatment is coordinate road works and punish vandalism
This is from an op-ed essay that appeared in the Deccan Herald.
The Karnataka High Court’s proceedings on the Bengaluru’s pothole epidemic has raised hopes that the shameful state of our city roads may, at last, get some attention.
So apalling is the state of our roads, and so brazen is the authorities’ disregard for the needs of its citizens, that Bengalurians are calling for the Prime Minister himself to visit their neighbourhoods so that the roads may be properly resurfaced. The joke is a sign of despair.
After the flooding of 2016, I too argued for the Prime Minister to take an interest in the city’s governance.
A city bursting with energy of entrepreneurship, advanced science & technology, refined arts and culture has been brought to its knees by potholes, absent street lights, waterlogging and endless traffic congestion.
The problems are complex and inter-connected, but there are solutions. Even if the municipal corporation has been either incapable or derelict in managing the city infrastructure, the current combination of civic activism, judicial interest and administrative focus demonstrates that change is possible. To make the most of this opportune moment, we must identify the critical leverage points in the system, and not merely the most obvious symptoms.
There is no doubt that identifying the potholes and filling them is urgent and important. This will prevent bodily injury, loss of life and improve traffic flows. However, filling potholes is a Sisyphean task that addresses the visible symptoms. The newly filled potholes will reappear within weeks. We need a systemic solution to ensure that potholes are not formed in the first place.
Why are potholes formed? The ready answer is corruption. This is an undoubtable fact. And we must hold politicans, officials and contractors accountable. But if we stop our enquiry here we will be missing other causes: the absence of administrative coordination and unchecked vandalisation of roads. What this means is that we need not wait for the corruption problem to be solved to get massive improvement in road quality and safety.
A couple of years ago, the roads in my neighbourhood were impressively redone. The surface was asphalted properly, lanes were marked, cat-eyes installed and footpaths paved. A few months later, one side of the road was excavated to install fibre-optic cables. This took a couple of months, and while the road was resurfaced, it was now uneven with gaps where water could seep into. Then came the turn of the water and sewage pipes, and the road was dug up at intervals. The cover-up was perfunctory. A few months later, a commercial building dug up the road diagonally to install electric cables, sprinkled some holy sand on the deep rut, and was done with it. Then the rains came and resulted in a patchwork of potholes.
Filling potholes with pebbles and tar will not substantially solve the problem. There is a pathology to potholes: once the road surface is damaged, water and mechanical wear & tear will enlarge the spot and turn it into a pothole. Potholes will then expand and merge with each other to form bigger potholes.
A stitch in time saves nine. But preventing a small tear saves nine hundred. We should stop potholes from being formed. The good news is that this is not difficult and does not cost a lot of money. Mere administrative changes and leadership can go a long way in preventing good roads from developing into bad ones.
First, every ward must set up a Road Coordination Committee, comprising of all officials — from BBMP, BWSSB, BESCOM, telecom, gas — who are permitted to dig roads. The committee must create a common calendar, on a quarterly basis, to coordinate road works. Once work has been completed at a given stretch, it should not be dug up for the next year. It should also certify the quality of repair after works is up to the standard. The information on requests, work schedules and completion dates must be published online. This will enable citizens to identify authorised road works and challenged unauthorised ones.
Second, police stations must be required to charge any person digging up public roads without authorisation by the Road Coordination Committee. Damaging public property is a crime and no new statutes are required to prevent it.
When it rules on the matter, the High Court could direct BBMP to set up Road Coordination Committees and a foolproof framework for authorising road works. It could also direct the Commissioner of Police to ensure that vandalisation of roads and pavements is vigorously prosecuted.
** Unrelated: My Debates with my Daughters column for Deccan Herald**
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