September 26, 2005

Western potholes

Inordinate connectivity difficulties means putting stuff up here has taken a back seat. Until it makes the move up from there ... here's my fortnightly column for Mid-Day. Appeared today Monday Sep 26. Comments welcome.


The page linked above has long since vanished. Here's the text of the article, appended below.

Western Stretch of Potholes

So I'm standing at the entrance of the new airport terminal in my city. Once, this was the only terminal building here, which domestic and international flights alike used. But then international flights got their own facility at Sahar, and later Indian Airlines moved out to its own new terminal. And now this old terminal building, home to a burgeoning number of airlines and passengers, has had a makeover.

It's not complete yet, but it is splashy, and people come to marvel at it.

Two days ago, I came here to pick up someone. Since the arrivals section is not incomplete, flights arrive at the Indian Airlines terminal.

On an electronic board there, the number of the flight I'm waiting for blinks on, with "Expected 1050" beside it. Odd, because it is now 1130. As if recognizing that absurdity, the number blinks off and doesn't return. Other flight numbers blink on and off, but not this one. Many minutes go by: no sign of it. Nor of the person I'm waiting for. How can I find out what's happening?

Ah, there is an inquiry window. But in that window, I find a handwritten sign: "For any inquiries, please consult the representatives of respective airlines." Very good. But no directions to where these representatives might be. No phone numbers. No way to find out what's happening with my flight. Along with a small horde of as frustrated people, I have to wait.

We build splashy terminals that make people proud. But there's a strange reluctance to make them easily usable: yes, even when they are being built.

So that was the exasperation from two days ago. Today, I'm standing at this entrance waiting to say goodbye to the same person, and I'm exasperated again, and it has little to do with the terminal. For I got here in a rickshaw, travelling via the major Bombay artery that is called the Western Express Highway but is a Western Stretch of Potholes.

Now I know this has been an inordinately wet monsoon, and I know traffic in this city is expanding at a gallop. But even so, I cannot understand two things.

One, why our roads are so vulnerable to the rains. Why is it that every single monsoon season, year after year, they dissolve into potholes? After all, it isn't as if the monsoon is new to this city. Our road-makers have had decades of experience with rains. By now, they should have found a way to give us roads that will not dissolve, as road-makers in other monsoon-drenched countries -- Malaysia comes to mind -- have managed to do.

But no: every year, potholes.

Two, why the roads are worse this year than they ever have been. It's a cruel joke to call it an Express Highway. On long stretches, especially approaching this new terminal, traffic slows to a lurching, first-gear crawl, courtesy the great number and frightening depth of potholes. Once, we slowly overtook a low-slung Maruti Esteem, creeping to minimize the bumps, but still scraping its underbelly with every hole. At times I was seriously afraid my rickshaw would not make it through the next hole; or that we would topple gently over; or that a passing much taller vehicle -- that overloaded truck, maybe? -- would topple onto us.

I noticed my driver, a man approaching 50, shift uncomfortably in his seat as we staggered along. He eyed me in the rear-view mirror and said: "I had a small accident recently, sir, and I hurt my back. Since then, it is hard for me on roads like these."

He went on: "I have been driving a rickshaw in Bombay since 1984, sir. I have never seen the roads as bad as this."

And standing at that entrance, still shaking from the horrendous ride to get here, I found myself thinking: isn't it interesting? Since 1984, we've moved from two or three outdated models of cars to dozens; from one domestic airline to several; from shoddy goods sold in dingy stores to sparkling malls filled with the world's best names; from phones confined to the rich and connected few to cellphone service affordable by great numbers; from one poky terminal at this airport to three large and splashy ones.

Yet in those two decades, we have been unable to do anything about roads. Basic, essential roads. Sure, we've erected flyovers. But the surface of our roads? Potholes every monsoon, worse every year; in 2005, the worst they have ever been.

What is the reason for this? It's not that Indians somehow lack technical capability: the very terminal I'm standing in is testament to such capability.

No, I suspect the reason has something to do with my exasperation from two days ago. Something about the way the splashy things -- cars, terminals, malls -- command our excitement and attention, but the basics get none. Two days ago, it was how I had no way to find out when a flight would touch down. Today, it is about the state of the roads and what it does to a man's back.

We are so swept up in the grandeur of great big projects that we don't care about the smaller everyday ones. No glamour in roads, no cachet of gleaming buildings or multinational labels. Yet if you think about it, it is the smaller things that are the most vital to our lives. What use a terminal upgrade if meeting my visitor remains a frustrating experience? What use the flyovers if the rain destroys the roads every year?

Bad back and all, my rickshaw driver was something of a philosopher. Slowing for another hole, he said: "Why do they want to make a Shanghai here? If they can make Bombay Bombay, we want nothing more!"


R. said...

The reason for potholes is simple enough. Contracts and Contractors. The faster the road disintegrates sooner will they get a contract. In some cases these contracts are annual. So this leads to cheaper material, shoddy labour and a road that gets higher and higher every year (since they just lay the tar mixture right over the existing road, hence causing a not so level road and finally leading to potholes).

It would be cheaper to give a five year contract and get a performance guarantee from the contractor for the strength of the road. Even if the authorities pay higher for this, it should make more financial sense in the long run. Further more there should be strict regulations regarding the credentials & solvency of the contractor (being a Politician's relative is NOT strong credentials).

Anonymous said...

Sorry no space. but am following up on the Honda Motor case. Here is a news item:

Central intelligence agencies have warned of a possible repeat of the Gurgaon violence, this time at another Japanese unit — the Suzuki-owned Maruti Udyog Limited.

Leaders of the Left parties, associated with labour unions, are also under watch. The agencies have named AITUC’s general secretary and CPI MP Gurudas Dasgupta and its national secretary D.L. Sachdeva for fuelling the situation.


"The union has sought a fresh registration along with other demands such as stoppage of employing contract workers, clear definition of working hours, reinstatement of about 2,400 employees compelled to go in for VRS since 2001 etc," the note claims.

Are we seeing a pattern here? The second Japanese company to be targetted. Let us drive all these companies to China and then the existing workers will be rendered unemployed. Let us then roll out more Employment guarantee schemes that will ensure that some pockets will be lined.
N Ram and The Hindu can continue to write peans to their country - I mean China and not India.
With all these Chinese 5th column, we need not worry about any external invasions from them. Their lackeys will finish us from within.

Anonymous said...

nikhil, With all these Chinese 5th column, we need not worry about any external invasions from them. Their lackeys will finish us from within

Here's a note about our own DD who'd still be calling for external invasion had not UPA turned tables on the NDA during the last LS elections, enjoy:

Saturday morning, last week was a bad one for me – the first thing I read, was an article from Dilip D'Souza. He pontificated,

"Then what do we say about those who might plot against the obscenity that blights their land, as Stauffenberg did, who fight to free India of it? Are they patriots? If so, what if they welcomed a force from abroad that toppled this hypothetical regime, as many Iraqis did? Are they still patriots?" (

I was stunned. D'Souza a recognized and very visible journalist, was insinuating and subtly recommending a foreign invasion of India to get rid of the current government; pretty much like the US did in Iraq. Let's be sure of one thing- I will die defending D'Souza's right to criticize, fight legally against, decry or vote out of office the current Indian government – but, calling for foreign invasion?? Now, that's beyond hate.

full article here


kuffir said...

inordinate connectivity..potholes on the highway..glad to have you back in india.

Dilip D'Souza said...

kuffir, thanks for your welcome, but I'm not sure what you mean. I've not been outside India for 1.5 years, and in any case have lived here for the last 13.5 years.

r: you're exactly right. I wish we could move to these longer-term contracts -- and in fact I've heard government officials themselves suggesting that this is the way to tackle the problem of poor roads. Make the contractors sign long-term contracts for which they are paid once. That way their interest is in the well-being of the road. How likely is that to happen, given the amounts involved? Let's just say, not very.

Anonymous said...

After seeing the posts, once again we seem to have the solutions but not the will to implement them - simply because vested interests- in this case the contractors have a stake. Sorry for the digression- but the problem whether in economic policies or anything else that will benefit the large majority of Indians seems to be vested interests. How we can get outof this vicious circle is something I feel nobody has any convincing answers.