The annual Mumbai rant is back. Along with the monsoon, potholes on our roads are amidst us in plenty. Barely three weeks into the four-month season, as many as 1,274 complaints have been recorded on the dedicated portal that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) helpfully put out a few years ago. The annual ritual of spotting and repairing potholes – before the ten-day Ganesh festival sets in – will run its course this year too.
Delays in commuting, accidents resulting in loss of lives, health issues such as damage to the spine and bones have now become a part of the monsoon season. Even the Bombay high court has been seized of the issue. Is it all that difficult to construct roads that will not develop potholes and craters every single monsoon? Of course, it is not. By now, we are familiar with the fact that a cartel of contractors who undertake road construction and repair work are responsible for turning Mumbai into the world’s only reality amusement park-city with exhilarating rides, with the apparent passive participation of those in the BMC – corporators and officers – whose job it is to keep the roads in vehicle-ready condition.
Municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta recently went around some areas to review the pothole filling work now being done by contractors and asked BMC officers to send the material for quality tests. Fair enough, but it hardly begins to address the problem. The repair of potholes, while a cause for immediate concern, is not the fundamental issue. The construction of roads and pavements in a shoddy manner and without adhering to specifications is. It is only because roads are poorly constructed that they come apart and develop potholes and pavements develop gaps.
More than 30% of the potholes already reported are on newly constructed roads, according to the BMC website. Is this not scandalous? Apparently not so to the BMC engineer who obligingly drew parallels for us in a recent media interview. Just like we periodically do pest control measures in our homes, we have to undertake pothole filling work now and then, he said. This would be funny if it were not so pathetic. The BMC has just spent nearly Rs 2,000 crore to build 840 roads and plans to lay another 350 after the rains.
Mehta would have done a revolutionary deed if he manages to break the nexus that the contractor cartel enjoys with politicians and BMC officers and develops a zero-tolerance policy for bad and potholed roads, and poor pavements. The cosy commercial camaraderie allows them to perennially bag contracts, share the spoils of quoting low and increasing the cost manifold later, get away without being penalised for below-par work and so on – only to bag the contracts again. A few commissioners before him tried to but gave up. Most did not get into the cesspool at all. Is Mehta up to the task?
His willingness to take on the contractor lobby depends, to a great extent, on the support he gets from the chief minister and citizens of Mumbai. In fact, citizens can do more than merely report potholes. Interested citizens and citizens’ groups can play the watchdog role as roads are constructed and potholes are repaired, and report to the commissioner if they find or suspect anything amiss. For this, the BMC will have to be transparent with its specifications of road construction and the terms of contract with contractors.
If the corporation – and commissioner Mehta -- intend to honestly address the core issue of bad roads, it is quite simple. He would know where to begin. He would also know what it could cost him. It all comes down to intent, really.