Navigating the everlasting circus that is the Indian city road

In India, going by the way they operate, one wonders whether the civic departments are at war with each other.
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.

Apart from the garbage, filth, overflowing drains and the virtual non-existence of pavements, one thing that is common to most Indian cities is having its roads at a stage of constant repair. I live in the bustling metropolis of Mumbai and I haven’t seen a single road that hasn’t got some stretch or other under constant repair for the last decade. I was enthralled to know that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is inviting a tender worth Rs 7,000 crore for concreting 400 km of asphalt road. This is a part of the master plan to convert the entire 2,000 km of asphalt roads to cement ones. All this looks wonderful on paper. The issue is when it comes to execution.

The local authorities are in a world of their own. Going by the way they operate, one wonders whether the civic departments are at war with each other. The water department waits until the new concrete road is complete so that they can dig it up to lay the new pipeline. The sewage department would come up with a new master plan to lay the drain just after the water department had moved out after keeping the roads dug up for a few years. Power supply guys are waiting to ambush in the vicinity.

They can move in the moment the water department fill up their trenches. Optical fibre cable and gas lines are in queue with their crew. By the time, this merry go-around completes a turn, it is time for the next elections. A new master plan is put in place and the roads are due for the next round of concreting. And the digging up starts again, to be abandoned mid-way as a new flyover is going to come up, which gets stopped after a few months as there is a plan for a new metro line crossing it. By this time, some of the land on the route gets encroached and now it is time for rehabilitation of slum dwellers.

Crores worth of tenders are being floated by the civic bodies for concreting roads. These concrete roads get broken in five years, but that is not going to deter the corrupt contractors, politicians and civic authority nexus that has tasted blood. If it get broken after a few years, one can always float another tender and start re-concreting again. When all this is complete, a new study will come that will proclaim the superiority of asphalt roads over concrete one. Now it is time for converting the concrete roads back to asphalt. The circus continues uninterrupted, while the hapless citizens dance around heaps of rubble, potholes and the chaotic traffic negotiates its serpentine path through roads that are 100 m wide at one part of the road and 3 m wide a few hundred metres down the lane.

The net result is that Mumbai city resembles a war zone now. A citizen of mid-town London who had survived the Luftwaffe air raid at the height of World War II would not feel out of place here. Mumbai is constantly covered in a pall of dust. Power cables, drainage pipes and telephone cables, all are spilled out on the road like the entrails of a dying beast ripped apart by a drunken predator. There is a joke going around in Mumbai. With the frantic pace with which BMC is digging up the entire city and making it look like a rabbit warren, sooner or later it is going to solve India’s energy crisis by striking oil.

This is not just a Mumbai story. There is deadly competition from other Indian cities in this regard. Bengaluru, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Pune, Kochi—wherever I travel—I find roads dug up for one reason or another. It is that Abhimanyu-caught-in-chakravyuh feeling when we drive around in Indian cities. Every road has been dug up and there are random one-ways and diversion signs that confound even Google Maps.

The net result is that Indian cities have the worst quality of life in the global livability index. Delhi ranked 173 out of 180 cities. Mumbai was ranked 141 in 2022. This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. By 2050, it is estimated that half of India’s population will be living in its cities and 44 per cent of it will be in Indian metros.

A few years ago, there was a lot of talk about Indian cities becoming smart cities. To be fair, parts of a few cities have some showpiece pavements, some flower pots in the median and half-functioning streetlights here and there. Now that we have moved to other topics that hog the headlines, there isn’t much talk in the media about making the dumb cities and citizens of India smart anymore. Our cities remain ‘Ram bharose’ as usual and they can only be saved by divine intervention, it seems.

Anand Neelakantan

Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy

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