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Potholes: Split Wide Open

Potholes: Split Wide Open
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Above: A road filled with potholes in Mumbai, a common sight during the monsoon/Photo:

The Supreme Court has held authorities responsible for deaths due to this menace. But until the Motor Vehicles Amendment Bill gets passed, there will be no compensation for such deaths

By Papia Samajdar

In December 6, a Supreme Court bench of Justices Madan B Lokur, Deepak Gupta and Hemant Gupta took notice of the shocking number of deaths caused by potholes. During the period 2013-17, a total of 14,926 people lost their lives in various parts of the country due to the menace of potholes. Earlier in the year, the same bench rapped the central and state governments for the rise in pothole deaths. In fact, the number of people killed in 2017 due to potholes was 3,597 compared to 2,324 in 2016.

Saying that the number of deaths due to potholes far exceeded those caused by terrorist attacks, the bench asked the Supreme Court-appointed road safety committee headed by Justice KS Radhakrishnan to look into the matter in July. In the December 6 hearing, the bench asked for a response from the centre.

The case in question was a writ petition filed by S Rajaseekaran, an orthopaedic surgeon and chairman and head of Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in Ganga Hospital at Coimbatore in 2014. He had sought the Court’s intervention for strict enforcement of the prevailing laws under Article 32 of the Constitution. His petition also sought directions from the Court for infrastructure upliftment, post-accident care facilities and minimisation of fatalities in road accidents.

Potholes are a common sight on Indian roads. They increase in number and size every monsoon. But why is this so? In order to be durable, a road req­uires proper design, quality material used in construction, labourers’ skills and drainage systems. One of the biggest reasons behind potholes after the rains is a combination of thin or incorrectly compacted road bed and inadequate drainage. During rain, water collects in the soil under the road bed, and if this is not thick enough, it becomes unstable. This reduces its load-bearing capacity and weak spots are formed, leading it to collapse.

Prithvi Singh Kandhal, associate director (emeritus) at the National Centre for Asphalt Technology, US, told India Legal: “There is a fundamental engineering problem in roads which is not common public knowledge. Of the 10 types of bituminous paving mixtures specified and used in India, seven are water trapping and only three are dense-graded and of desirable mixture.”

In 2015, India committed to improving road safety under the Brasilia Declaration on Road Safety which called for stringent laws to prevent road accidents. Tied to the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, India along with other participants committed to reducing by 2020 the number of deaths caused due to road accidents by half.

The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, currently in the Rajya Sabha, seeks to make existing laws stringent both for road users and for those responsible for their construction and maintenance. The government is following a four-pronged strategy to address road safety based on the four Es—education, enforcement, engineering and emergency care. From including chapters on road safety in school textbooks to conducting road safety audits, increasing penalties for traffic defaulters and hiking compensation for accident victims, the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill is a positive act. The Bill has been passed in the Lok Sabha.

In 2015, Nitin Gadkari, the Union transport minister, stated that all new central road projects would be made of concrete. Concrete pavements are superior to bitumen or flexible pavements. “It requires less maintenance, sustains climatic extremes better, and is eco-friendly. Well-made rigid pavements are long-lasting and suffer no damage,” said Sanjay Londhe, director, Ashoka Buildcon, a construction engineering company.

On March 9, 2017, the government approved a National Road Safety Policy. According to this policy, road safety was made a part of road design. Identification and rectification of accident-prone spots or black spots have been accorded the highest priority. Apart from that, ambulances are to be provided at gaps of 50 km across highways and road safety audits have to be taken up. On November 30, 2017, the Supreme Court had issued additional guidelines to governments to come up with a road safety action plan by March 31, 2018. The guidelines included setting up of State Road Safety Councils, District Road Safety Committees, Lead Agency, creation of a Road Safety Fund and a permanent road safety cell.

In October 2017, the Lokayukta had initiated suo moto proceedings against civic authorities in Bengaluru for deaths caused due to potholes. The Lokayukta held them accountable for the sub­standard work done by the contractors and the supervision thereof by the authorities.

In Maharashtra, the government recently tweaked the tender norms of road contractors in order to break their monopoly and bring in transparency. The previous norms allowed the participation of only those firms which were licensed with the Department of Public Works. This has been discontinued and now all contractors can participate. These norms have been made applicable to roads, bridges, building construction and maintenance contracts.

The performance of roads is dependent on the quality of construction more than the design recommendations. According to the Supreme Court guidelines, there is a need for regular road safety audits. The same is also mentioned in the National Road Safety policy. However, there is a dearth of qualified auditors in road safety engineering.

Availability of good quality material for road construction is another challenge faced by the industry. India lags in exploring new materials, technologies and equipment which can improve the structural strength of roads, impacting their durability considerably. Eighty percent of India’s road network is for rural roads. Construction of a sustainable road surface for low-volume roads is a challenge, according to A Veeraragavan, professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Madras.

As for deaths caused by potholes, the Supreme Court on December 7 held the authorities responsible for road maintenance accountable. However, there is no law to hold them legally accountable.

Until the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill gets passed, there is no way to ensure compensation for deaths caused due to potholes. The Court asked the states and UTs to come up with a remedy for monetary compensation.

According to the data shared by the states with the Supreme Court committee, Tamil Nadu reported 877 fewer deaths due to road safety measures, followed by Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. The overall reduction of deaths nationwide in all kinds of road accidents was three percent in 2017.

The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, if passed, will help in plugging the gaps in existing laws. It will hold builders accountable for poor quality of infra­structure. Contractors, consultants and civic agencies will be held accountable for faulty design, poor construction and lack of road maintenance—leading to accidents.

That will be a good move, indeed.

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