Plothole: More money for fewer craters in Mumbai?
Here’s a trick question – How can the amount of money spent on filling potholes go up year after year, if, going by the claims of the civic body as well as chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, the number of potholes is on the decline?
In the past five years starting 2014-15, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has spent ₹68.31 crore on 29,726 potholes that appeared on the city’s 1,941km of roads under its jurisdiction. In the past three years, the number of potholes recognised by the civic body dropped to 1,433 till date in 2018-19, from 4,044 in 2017-18 and 4,478 in 2016-17. The budget to fill potholes is ₹9.3 crore this year, compared to ₹7.73 crore in 2017-18 and ₹6.95 crore in 2016-17. What makes solving this inverse proportion problem tough is the civic body has changed the way the potholes are counted over the past two years.
The civic body’s logic is while the number of potholes is on the decline, their size is increasing. “The expenditure is related to the size of potholes, not the number. If a pothole is bigger than two potholes combined, the material needed to fill it will be more than that used for two potholes,” said Vinod Chithore, chief engineer (roads).
While answering a question during the recently concluded monsoon session of the state legislature, the CM said the number of potholes has dipped by more than half in the past four years. He said that of the total length of roads in Mumbai that come under the BMC, 605km is in the defect liability period (DLP) (which means the contractors are responsible for their upkeep). Effectively, BMC is responsible for the remaining 1,336km of roads, but the complaints they register include the entire 1,941km stretch.
Civic activists feel the logic is twisted. “BMC is probably the only civic body in the country that has a dedicated budget for potholes. It is a shameless thing. Even an illiterate person can say that if the number of potholes is decreasing, the expenditure should also decrease proportionally,” said James John, Action for Good Governance and Networking in India (AGNI) activist. “The civic body has no mechanism to file a complaint related to potholes. On most occasions, the disaster management helpline (1916) is busy, and the ward-level WhatsApp numbers don’t work. This effectively makes the number of complaints unbelievable.”
Blaming the traffic or potholes is not correct, he said. “Vehicle movement on Bandra-Worli sea link is quite fast and heavy. This stretch receives the same amount of rainfall as the rest of the city. Why doesn’t the sea link have even one pothole? How are the roads in Marine Drive smooth? This is because they are all VIP roads,” said John.
Rakesh Mishra, town-planning expert, Fellow Member of Institute of Town Planners India (ITPI) for 25 years, said, “The main problem is the nexus between contractors who make the roads and the engineers who approve it. The roads are not being made according to the standards dictated by the Indian Road Congress.”
The IRC is an apex body of highway engineers in the country. It was set up in December 1934 on the recommendations of the Indian Road Development Committee, best known as Jayakar Committee, set up by the Government of India with the objective of road development in India. This year, BMC has reserved ₹9.3 crore to be paid to the seven contractors who have been appointed specially for potholes in each zone, which means they will be paid ₹12,108 for a cubic meter for the pothole mix. Although there is no check on the material being used by them, the payment will be done after thorough checking of the potholes, insist civic officials. “We will make sure the potholes are filled properly and the material does not wear off. BMC will pay the contractors only after the monsoon to increase the liability of the mix,” said a civic engineer from the roads department said.
One of the contractors said, “We are mostly using cold mix, as hot mix can’t be used during the monsoon. We get cold mix from various companies outside the state. As we will get the payment only after the monsoon, it is our responsibility to keep the mix intact for four months.”
Civic officials feel they get flak for potholes that appear on roads maintained by other agencies, namely the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and Public Works Department (PWD), among others. Prashant Gaikwad, assistant municipal commissioner, K-West (Andheri) ward, said, “There are some patches of MMRDA roads in my ward. I get complaints regarding potholes on those roads too, but I sent them to MMRDA.”