Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ups and Downs in Mumbai

I've been trying to think of how to solve the pothole problem on Mumbai roads. It is also eminently clear that the Mumbai I am referring to is predominantly the northwestern, northeastern, northern and a bit of the Central suburbs.

South Mumbai, like the favoured queen , in the old one-king-multi-queen-one favorite queen-all-others-demoted stories of my childhood, gets its cosmetic and civil engineering come-uppance at the slightest perturbation noticed by the powers that be. The favoured Queen, even has a necklace named after her, Marine Drive, and a slight crack on its face, has the authorities rushing with corrective action and funds.

I lived in those parts till the mid seventies. And I never ever felt like commenting on the roads. Shifting to the northern suburbs, and later commuting to the city for work for a few years, is something my lumbar vertebrae cannot forget. Growing construction, new roads, the same old rain, but an additional new feature, the potholes. Watch !

As reported by Clara Lewis/TNN, the Municipal Corporation has budgeted more than Rs 3,600 crore on improving roads in the last decade. But Mumbai’s road surface still peels off every monsoon. So where does all the money go?

Certainly, to contractors who are responsible for upkeep of roads. Contractors, of course, spend some of the money on mending roads but often do it so creatively, that they need to be called back again after a few months. But contractors do not get to pocket all the money they save; a part of this money has to be funnelled to a section of politicians and officials who decide municipal contracts. The budget is approved by the standing committee, which often makes changes in the way money will be spent. “Contractors often tell standing committee members where the money should be deployed and last-minute changes are done according to their wishes,’’ a standing committee member said.

I have now come to the conclusion that no amount of fancy concrete mixtures, imported road machines, and municipal whistle blowers can solve this problem.

One needs to look for a out-of-the-err....-pothole solution .

My moment-of-revelation happened, in the early part of this century, when the President of India was to preside over the convocation(commencement) ceremony at the Institute on whose campus I reside. By tradition this is always in August, in the midst of rains, which have been around from June. Those days, I had occasion to travel daily to the western suburbs and return in the evenings by bus, and between the pouring rain above, the leaking waterdrops in the bus, and deep extensive potholes on the road, the only thing that kept us from getting hurt as the bus tilted in a pothole, was the human shock absorbers packed cheek by jowl in the bus.

Two days before the great event, there was massive police and municipal presence on the roads, there was the terrible stench of tar and bitumen, as road rollers, and road workers with shovels hindered the bus speed even more. The potholes were being filled on a war footing. The President of a country cannot be subject to potholes , bumps, and dips, and so the road condition was made as smooth and exemplary.

2-3 rainy days after the event, returning home one evening, I banged my head on the bus ceiling (I was standing in the aisle) as the bus went through a newly created pothole, which had probably forgotten all about the President, now that the repair staff and police had vamoosed.

And so now I have a solution.

Shift the residences of ministers to the suburbs. Currently, they stay in sprawling mansions in South Mumbai, with gardens trailing into the sea. Bang in the middle of a Northern suburb we have a huge green area (Aarey Milk Colony) , where the Government dairy is, and the government has seen it fit to rent/lease out areas of this to film studios. The massive acreage is hugely wooded, and has excellent infrastructure of motorable roads inside, where buses also ply. The government could construct sylvan villas for its ministers here, using ecofriendly materials. Those wanting to maintain cows and buffaloes of their own , would be encouraged, and there would be no risk of a fodder scam à la Bihar state, because there would be so much fodder naturally around.

There has been a precedent for such uneconomical shifting. The British functioned from Shimla in the North in the summer, to keep away from the Delhi summer heat, and the Viceroy even had a separate summer lodge built there. The Maharashtra state legislature, shifts lock,stock,barrel, and secrets, to Nagpur (in Central India) in the winter, to conduct the winter session away from Mumbai, though I think this is done to improve the quality of Nagpur roads on a yearly basis.

So shifting ministers to the Aarey Colony sylvan surroundings ( gurgling brooks, salubrious breezes, wildlife, with an occasional leopard thrown in for ministerial excitement) should not be difficult. Plenty of parking spaces, and the massive security traffic will ensure that roads will be as smooth as actor Hema Malini's cheeks as she dances in the rain in a Hindi movie. The highways leading from South Mumbai, to the northern suburbs will be attended to an a war footing, police presence will be noticeable.

Very recently the wife of Maharashtra's chief minister, drove to a northern suburb of Malad to inaugurate a exhibition, and spoke out against the road and the traffic as she suffered through the ups and downs. Think of what will happen if a whole bunch of ministers wives, travelling to South Mumbai for social events , get cheesed off and speak out against roads and traffic.

In the meanwhile, the Mumbai papers are full of citizens like a rickshawalla whose vehicle got stuck in a pothole, and he got injured when the steering handle hit him in the abdomen; he now carries construction rubble in his ricksha, and instantly fills a pothole when he sees it, before crossing it.

A friend of mine , who decided to work (to enhance her technical knowledge) outside campus for a few years on lien from her job (where she walked to work in 10 minutes), developed scoliosis, from excessive abuse of her vertebral column in bus travel over large time periods. I don't even want to imagine what patients in ambulances, and pregnant women have to suffer, as they oscillate through the potholes.

In the meanwhile, South Mumbai, which is currently accustomed to getting the best of everything , before everyone else (remember the story of the multi-wife king, and the favourite queen), might at some point , feel the pinch , and possibly yearn for potholes.

As a special for them only, we offer these pothole stickers. A decent pasting of these across prominent roads in South Mumbai, and the hi-fi folks there can get a taste of how the common suburbanite travels, with all the anxiety, but none of the bumps and bangs.

Is someone (ouch) ,(bump), (aiyyo, my back!) listening ?


  1. All the roads suck... Except for the roads leading to the hot-shots' house! Mumbai mirror reported it properly.. Nice point.. shift them one by one to distant suburbs xD!

  2. It works. When a particular party was in power, one of the ministers stayed in our area. We had no powercuts, the roads were fine, all encroachments removed from pavements. After the party lost power in the elections, we also suffered the same fate. Power cuts et al.

  3. It felt as though you are talking about the roads of my city .Completely with you on shifting hot shots to the suburbs.And loved the line- 'with an occasional leopard thrown in for ministerial excitement'.Lol .

  4. It's true everywhere. If an influential politician lives in a certain area, that area will receive massive funding, and will have smooth roads. It's just as true in Canada as in India. Unfortunately, no influential persons live on our street, so it is full of potholes.
    Moving the people with the power is an excellent idea.

    —Kay, Alberta, Canada

  5. I undestand your angst. Infact share it more than ever with you.
    But let them leave Aarey. I dont want the already worried animals lose more sheen. ( I meant the real animals)

  6. there are potholes in Hawaii but not to the extent that they cause back pain.

  7. I am finally allowed to comment. Of other places in Mumbai i feel Powai is the worst. I mean the main road is not even walkable and crossing the road is a nightmare. Why such heavy traffic and utter chaos I wonder. After the road construction pot holes may have reduced in number but one or two are bad enough if you accidentally step in. actually I am a bit of a villager have lived in a small well maintained (at least the parts I travel through) township all my life I am terrified of potholes and the like.

  8. Our roads are crumbling in the U. S. while our greedy legislators all live in Washington near the Capitol so having them live in our area wouldn't work. I doubt that the roads in D. C. have potholes, but we sure do.

  9. I love the stickers! Too funny.

    New Orleans has a lot of problems with the road, because of the oak trees. The roots bust out of the ground and causes problems. Also, the heat will cause the Interstate to buckle.

    Thank you so much for your comment on my blog :) Loved it! Made me smile :)