Pot Holes are the bane for the urban commuter in Karnataka and very specifically Bengaluru. They have caused fatalities, grievous injuries and destroyed families. Why do they occur, who is and can be held responsible, and are they? Our questions answered by Merlin Francis (Twitter: @franc_merlin) as she delves deep into the pothole that has no end.
Mridula (name changed) (29) was riding her two-wheeler to work on August 16 when she encountered a pothole on the Nagawara flyover in Bengaluru. “There was a car in front of me. I noticed the pothole only when I reached its edge. Then I braced for a fall,” she recalled.
The pothole, she claimed, was the size of her scooty tyre and swallowed it. Mridula's life was saved because cars behind her stopped, but the injuries cost her three weeks at work, not to mention the hospital charges.
When she returned to the road three weeks later, the pothole was still there. A week after that, she found concrete poured on it, and now there was bump instead of a pothole. Soon, the concrete came apart as well.
Mridula considers herself lucky, but riding on Bengaluru roads seems like pushing your luck. In October, when three people came under the wheels of heavier vehicles in a week as they navigated potholes in the city, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah put his foot down. Though the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) complained and blamed the monsoon, he gave BBMP a 15-day deadline to fix all the potholes in the city. All 15,935 of them, as identified by the Palike in October. Civic activists peg the number to be one lakh, though.
According to statistics released by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) this September 2017, the year 2016 saw more than 4.8 lakh road accidents in the country. About 9.2% of these happened in Karnataka. The state’s share in the number of deaths caused by these accidents is 7.4%, standing behind Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Bangalore grabs a bronze when it comes to cities with highest road accidents. Chennai came first and Mumbai sixth.
The situation is no different in Mangaluru. Here, until a few years ago, the Mangalore City Corporation (MCC) would get potholes filled with mud during the monsoon, despite the self-defeating nature of the exercise. Often, one gets to read how a home guard or an auto driver or school students hit the road to fix these potholes, since there's little faith in the civic body to do its job. Internet is awash with photos and news articles about crater-sized cavities on the city's roads.
Hanumanth Kamath, a Mangaluru-based social activist and president of the NGO Nagarika Hitharakshana Samithi, estimates that the MCC will spend around Rs 5.5 crore on filling potholes in the coming months. He said it’s not that checks and balances are not in place, but the business of constructing roads is done with an “understanding” between the ward corporator, corporation office and the contractor.
“A good road should last for at least two years. According to the agreement, payment can’t be released to the contractor unless its quality has been inspected by the junior engineer, assistant executive engineer and executive engineer. If the rules are followed, we don't need to spend crores on road patchwork.”
MN Sreehari, urban traffic expert and former advisor to Karnataka government on traffic, believes that the lack of political will to solve the problem is to be blamed. He said the BBMP should be fixing potholes between January and June, when the weather is dry. Instead, he said, they wait till the monsoon begins and then pour bad quality bitumen. He said the potholes are back within days, often posing a bigger risk than before.
Adding to the mess is corruption, because many of the contractors are connected to politicians. “There is no accountability, no transparency and no monitoring. Contractors who do a shoddy job are not even penalised,” he pointed out.
BBMP on defensive
Legal advisor to BBMP TH Avin contended that commuters should be alert and drive safe during the rainy season. He said the mayor gave the recent victims Rs 5 lakh on humanitarian grounds and added that there is no rule for compensation. He said the driver who ran his vehicle over the motorist is at fault. "We will defend ourselves if the cases go to court," he asserted.
Senior lawyer Jardhana Udaya Raju agreed that BBMP should not be held responsible by default. He said it has to be established in the court that the accident happened owing to the negligence of the Palike.
The Karnataka police department has recently written to the Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha, suggesting certain changes to the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill so that government authorities can be held responsible for accidents caused by inferior quality of roads. The Select Committee is expected to submit its report on the first day of the Winter Session.
Hows and whys of potholes
Potholes are caused due to the presence of water in the underlying soil structure and it gets worse when traffic passes over it. This is an urban flooding problem, said Ashish Verma, associate professor of Transport Engineering at the Department of Civil Engineering in IISc. He said unless this core issue is fixed, potholes will continue recurring.
He said using good quality bitumen and ensuring adequate drainage can ensure that once fixed, roads can remain pothole-free for at least five years. He explained that stagnant water weakens the bitumen layer, which eventually results in potholes. He further added that many roads do not have adequate drainage for rainwater to pass even though it is a basic element of road engineering. Verma is of the view that a mechanism to penalise contractors should be institutionalised and directions in this regard could be given by the high court.
BBMP commissioner Manjunath Prasad admitted that inadequate drainage facility is a factor causing potholes and promises they will be fixing drains in cross and main roads to reduce waterlogging during the rains. When asked why these roads weren’t fixed between January and June, during the dry season, he said “there were no potholes at that time.”
BBMP is also looking at white-topping (covering existing asphalt pavement with a layer of cement) 100 km of roads this year. This will be done in a phased manner for 1,400-km network of major roads, Prasad said.
S Somashekar, BBMP’s chief-engineer (major roads), informed that they use a WhatsApp group to coordinate fixing of the potholes. “About 98% of potholes on major roads have been fixed. We have been working day and night from 15th October to meet the target. Soon almost all the potholes will be covered," he claimed.
How the West fixes its potholes
India isn’t the only country that’s facing this pothole of a problem. According to a 2016-17 survey by the Asphalt Industry Alliance, UK has a 12-year backlog for fixing potholes.
However, dealing with this problem needn’t be an impossible and expensive affair for an IT hub like Bangalore. Chicago uses data from the 311 portal (non-emergency and service requests) to locate potholes and map it on the site Opengrid.io. This helps crews plan and schedule repair work accordingly.
In New York state’s Syracuse, the Department of Public Works has emphasised on accountability. It uses data visualisation to track and repair potholes. According to Sam Edelstein, chief data officer of the city of Syracuse, previously information on potholes from 311 callers and city workers were just written down on a piece of paper and worked upon. However, through minor tweaks to the GPS on vehicles used to fill potholes, the department could digitally map where potholes were filled, thereby, giving accurate data critical to improving our responsiveness.
However, it’s Kansas City that takes the cake. It uses a pothole prediction programme, now in its pilot phase, and gathers data including traffic volume, age of pavement, weather patterns, and pictures from traffic camera, etc. It is based on this predictive analysis that the city deploys teams to resurface or repair roads.
(Merlin Francis is a Bangalore based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. With Additional inputs from Elizabeth Mani, a Bangalore-based reporter.)