Bengaluru potholes: Weeding out corruption from road making is a must before hoping for smooth streets

When I worked for a newspaper in Bengaluru 25 years ago, I picked a particular pothole at Church Street for some special coverage. It was measured and photographed, and people in the neighbourhood were interviewed every day. I thought it was a pretty good way to provoke officials to pick up a shovel and gravel and fill at least some of the city's blighted potholes. As days passed, the disgrace we were featuring grew in perimeter and depth, as did the number of pedestrians and drivers who fell into it — or fell victim to it.

File image of a pothole. AFP .

File image of a pothole. AFP .

No official visited the pothole even as this saga continued, but an official did visit me in office on the 12th day. He didn't call me a pothole, but had an assortment of other dishonourable names for me. To begin with, he asked me, "Don't you have anything better to do?" Before he left, he reeled off a litany of excuses for leaving the pothole unattended.

A few citizens' groups, too, have resorted to outlandish means to draw attention to Bengaluru's potholes, which gained global notoriety because of the city's status as India's IT capital. In 2016, the people of HSR Layout did a "pothole pooja". The same year, residents conducted the "last rites" of Kaggadasapura Main Road, which they said had "died" of crater-sized potholes. Around the same time, some voiced their frustration through a rap that went viral.

While citizens have been doing freaky things in their quest for safe and smooth roads, authorities have been coming up with bizarre plans to pretend that they intend to make Bengaluru pothole-free. Last year, there were as many as five "deadlines" set by the then Siddaramaiah government to fill potholes, ranging from the size of a kadhai to a children's swimming pool.

Chief engineer (potholes)?

The latest is a proposal that Mayor of Bengaluru R Sampath Raj made on 28 June at a meeting of the city's civic corporation, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). He suggested a separate department with its own chief engineer to fill potholes.

Two weeks before that, another brainwave struck the new deputy chief minister, G Parameshwara, like a bolt of lightning. Pumped up with the enthusiasm of a new government, he announced that henceforth, a citizen could report a pothole and live happily thereafter. It would be fixed "immediately", he said.

The civic body claimed that during the week after Parameshwara's tweet, 4,944 of the city's 7,537 potholes had been fixed.

Parameshwara's quick-fix solution may have mitigated the problem to some extent, despite complaints that not all potholes that were reported were filled.

It's impossible to even imagine that the deputy chief minister and the mayor are ignorant of the utter absurdity of getting rid of potholes in this fashion or of the reasons that cause them in the first place.

Bengaluru's roads suffer from potholes because they suffer from politicians. Technically, the roads are plagued by

a) uneven surfaces as a result of slipshod work;
b) haphazard water and sewerage connections below those surfaces;
c) and clogged or non-existent stormwater drains, which make water stagnate on roads.

All these cause potholes. And the cause of all these causes — no prizes for guessing — is corruption of the most brazen kind.

Any one of these is bad enough to ruin a city's roads, but together, they can create a messy web of killer potholes that could turn driving into a hurdle race. Trying to fill them without getting rid of what causes them is like treating symptoms instead of the disease.

Fill potholes? Fill your pockets first

Running into no less than thousands of crores of rupees over time, corruption in the BBMP thrives because of the mafia-like nexus among corporators (its elected members), engineers and contractors. Slush money gets distributed up to very high levels in the Vidhan Soudha. For corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, the civic body has been one of the fattest milch cows to milk.

A Congress MLA once confided in me that a Bengaluru corporator made much more slush money than an Assembly member. He said that an MLA must often be content with bribes he gets in transfer of government officials, while a corporator could squeeze baksheesh from anything ranging from garbage disposal to flyover construction. It's not surprising that the fight for tickets to become a corporator is often fiercer than the scramble to become a legislator.

The very mention of the BBMP indeed stirs up horrendous visions of the demon of corruption, stretching its grotesque hands to rob citizens of their money and pushing it into the corporators' pockets. The common man shudders at the very thought of visiting a Palike office for fear that greedy officials will swoop on him the way vultures descend on prey.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Several agencies have unearthed a number of scams in the past. The most mind-blowing of them, so far, was perhaps the "fake bill scam" that came to light in 2014, in which fictitious bills were allegedly raised for works that did not exist. It's another matter that N Munirathna of the Congress, one of the accused in the case, won the RR Nagar Assembly election for the second time in a row in May.

The Congress, by no means, has monopoly of the corruption in the BBMP. Successive governments in the state and the parties that governed the BBMP have plundered the civic body to the optimum. Right now, the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance runs both the BBMP and the Karnataka government.

Counting potholes = counting stars

Is it any wonder that roads cave in just days after they are "repaired" or tarred? Is it also any wonder that Parameshwara's claim of having filled 4,944 of the city's 7,537 potholes does little to enthuse people? To begin with, how did anyone know how many potholes there were.

There lies another story.

In August 2017, the BBMP said the city had 5,067 potholes, of which 3,758 were filled. That should have left 1,309, right? Wrong. The very next month, civic officials said the city had 9,400 potholes because, they claimed, rains had doubled their number. Then in October, the BBMP placed the count at 15,935.

After potholes claimed four lives that month, Siddaramaiah, the then chief minister, made a big show of fixing 25 October as the deadline to get rid of them, later extending it to 6 November. After this second deadline — fifth in all, including earlier ones in the year — the mayor had said potholes were counted "unscientifically", and he had actually ordered 30,000 of these pits to be filled. Whatever their number, he claimed, only 844 of them remained. By the time Parameswhara was ready with the latest plan, there were apparently 7,535 potholes, of which 4,944 were filled. So there should now be 2,593 left. But wait for the next count.

Experts and citizens' groups say that officials are busy counting potholes rather than filling them. They question both the method of counting potholes and the way the BBMC fills them. The motto of the corporator-engineer-contractor mafia, however, is an uncomplicated one: Filling pockets takes precedence over filling or counting potholes.

The author tweets @sprasadindia.

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Updated Date: Jul 03, 2018 14:46:22 IST

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