Thursday, January 10, 2019

Unacceptable, but so very accepted

If I was a builder who built a sub-standard building that collapsed and killed a few people, or if I was an engineer who inspected and certified such a building as safe, I would be arrested. If I was not very rich, I would probably do some jail time too. I think it is also safe to assume that the state would chip in and offer compensation for the deaths. It does so in cases of accidents, fires, or bridges falling.

Funny, then, that a city should simply shake off responsibility when its own municipality is directly responsible for the safety and maintenance of the space. The failure to maintain roads can, and does lead to deaths. But somehow, these deaths do not lead to an outcry, or calls for justice and affixing of culpability, the way a building or bridge collapse death would.

The Hindu reported recently that, between 2013 and 2017, close to 15,000 Indians had died in accidents caused by potholes. Other reports suggest that the government has admitted to over 9300 deaths and 25000 people being injured because of potholes over the last three years. Our Supreme Court has described this situation as “unacceptable”.

Mumbai, with its nearly five month monsoon spell, is especially vulnerably to pothole-related damage. In July this year, a young motorcyclist was killed when his bike fell after hitting a pothole. Just days before, two other pothole related incidents were reported, one involved a pedestrian and another a mother-of-two whole was riding pillion on a bike.

Earlier this month, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) flatly refused to pay compensation to victims of road accidents, even if these deaths were caused by potholes. A corporator had demanded compensation, in response to which, the BMC said that the roads were the responsibility of the contractors.

In November, a woman and a six month old baby were reported killed when the bike they were riding pillion on skidded on a potholed road in Dadar. The family of four on the bike was thrown off and crushed by an oncoming water tanker. Oddly enough, the police thought it fit to arrest the tanker driver, but not to take any action against those who are responsible for filling potholes on the roads.

The BMC has not responded well to criticism of its handling of the pothole situation. When radio jockey Malishka spoofed the “Sonu” song, calling it the “Pothole Mix”, changing the lyrics to describe the mess the city is reduced to during the rainy season – potholes, water-logging, traffic and stalling of trains. The Shiv Sena and its corporators responded with outrage, suggesting that she be sued for 'defaming' the municipal body. Eventually, the BMC did send a notice to the RJ's mother, for “dengue breeding” at home.

Perhaps the corporators need to take some lessons from Mumbaikar Dadarao Bilhore. In 2015, his teenage son died in a pothole related accident. By June 2018, the grieving father had managed to fill up 556 potholes. He did express the hope that the BMC and MMRDA would look at people and be inspired to do a better job.

Mr Bilhore has shown that it can be done quickly and efficiently. It is, nevertheless, a great tragedy that heartbroken citizens should have to do a job for which taxpayers are already paying municipalities and their contractors. Perhaps the courts need to do more than say “unacceptable”.

First published here:

Sunday, January 06, 2019

How far to Auschwitz?

There is a curious object available online these days. “Hitler Germany” is a cheap plastic electric extension board. The company selling it is called Freedom Fashion. The strip costs between Rs 199 and Rs 399, after an appropriate discount. Someone noticed the offer and wondered aloud on social media if we should be reporting it. But what would we report? A gadget plugged into fascism?

This is a strange moment in time: close enough for us to recall gas chambers but far enough to forget gas chambers don’t happen without a lot of people wanting them, prepping for them...
Read the full essay here
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