TNM investigation: BBMP and cops cover up 13 pothole deaths in Bengaluru

TNM spoke to families of 13 people in Bengaluru, who died in accidents resulting from potholes in the last six years and found that not a single family had received compensation.
Bengaluru road
Bengaluru road
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If there has been one constant in the life of a Bengalurean, then it has been the ubiquitous pothole. Year after year, potholes and the resultant dangers have only increased. TNM revisited 13 cases of deaths caused by potholes in Bengaluru between 2017 and 2022 and found that not a single family had been compensated and not one Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) official had been held responsible. In most cases, police reports have frequently accused victims or drivers of "death due to negligence" rather than filing cases against contractors or engineers for poor road maintenance.

Syed Irfan’s cousin Tasdik Bushra, 19-year-old medical student lost her life after a speeding civic body truck rammed her scooter from behind as she was trying to avoid a pothole on Hennur Main Road near Lingarajapuram bridge on February 6, 2021. Initially, when the family approached the police to file a complaint, the police did not register the complaint accurately. It was after they visited the station with an influential person that the police arrested the driver of the truck, Palani, on charges of rash driving and negligence. Despite witnesses' claims that Bushra died when she was trying to avoid a pothole, the FIR registered by the police failed to mention it. Syed said that the pothole was filled within a few hours after the accident. “The irony was that they filled the pothole overnight. If BBMP had fixed it before, Bushra would be alive today,” he said. Embittered by his experience with the police and BBMP, Syed said, “The BBMP and the state will take action only when a government official or someone in authority faces a loss due to a pothole. Until then, it is the common man who has to suffer.”

While the pothole was never mentioned in the FIR in the death of Bushra, the police chose to blame 27-year-old Ashwin for his death. In March of this year, Ashwin was returning home at night in MS Palya, when he lost control of his two-wheeler after riding into a pothole, and fell down. He was grievously hurt and later succumbed to his injuries. According to the FIR filed by the police, Ashwin was riding his two-wheeler irresponsibly because of which he ran over an open manhole on the road when he lost control and fell over a pothole. His distraught mother Vasudha, said that Ashwin’s death was caused due to the pothole and that her son wasn’t to be blamed. On her insistence, the police added a last line in the FIR that the concerned officers should be held responsible and included unnamed BBMP and Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) officers as accused. But no action was ever taken against anyone and Vasudha did not receive any compensation.

“It's been eight months since I lost my son and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. I have visited the BBMP office six times since his death, and each time they assure me that they will look into it and send me back. But there is no progress at all,” Vasudha said. Vasudha raised Ashwin by taking up tailoring work after her husband passed away. A native of Haveri, she has now been left to fend for herself in Bengaluru as she has refused to be a burden on anyone. She has been trying to get a job or a pension from the government, so she can pay the house rent as tailoring work alone has been enough to sustain life in Bengaluru. “No amount of compensation will bring my son back. I’ll give BBMP money to fill all the potholes,” she said.

The blame game to pin the responsibility for her death on anyone but the civic authorities has continued. Sharmila, a 38-year-old teacher died in January 2022 in Anjana Nagar on Magadi road. She was riding a two-wheeler with her husband and lost control while attempting to evade a pothole, when she was run over by a Bolero car. While the police arrested the driver, witnesses blamed BBMP authorities for negligence and said the accident was caused due to potholes on the road. Despite many appeals made by the witnesses and Aam Aadmi party, no initial action was taken by the BBMP. “They arrested the driver and blamed others for my mother’s death,” her son Prajwal told TNM. Sharmila’s death had occurred three days after the Karnataka High court said that it was not satisfied with the status report filed by the BBMP about filling of potholes. A day after her death, BBMP chief engineer (road infrastructure) BS Prahlad blamed BWSSB for the bad condition of Magadi road, where the accident took place. He said that the death was not caused due to a pothole but due to BWSSB's work where they had dug the portion of the road to lay drinking water pipelines.

BBMP officers clueless about their compensation guidelines

The BBMP in December 2020, had announced that it would pay a compensation of Rs 3 lakh to victims who died in accidents and Rs 15,000 in case of minor injuries caused due to potholes or bad roads. According to the guidelines, the BBMP Commissioner, the Special Commissioner (Revenue), or an officer specifically appointed would exercise jurisdiction over claim petitions seeking compensation. For all practical purposes, this only remains on paper as BBMP officials who are supposed to receive the application for compensation are themselves not aware of BBMP offering compensation. A BBMP official in the road and infrastructure wing confirmed that the civic body was following the guidelines

But when TNM reached out to zonal chief engineers, they said that they were not aware of guidelines for the payment of compensation for pothole-related accidents and that they had not received any appeal for compensation. Ranganath, chief engineer of Dasarahalli zone said, “We haven’t received any compensation-related query from anyone and we don’t know anything about these guidelines.”

Why families of victims choose not to hold BBMP accountable

If seeking compensation was one way to hold BBMP accountable, then that effort seems to have failed as many times the lawyers representing the families of the victims, advise them not to mention the role of potholes. This has been done so that the families could get compensation under the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019. Deepak lost both his parents in 2017 in a pothole accident on Mysuru road. His parents, Anthony Joseph (55) and Sagai Mary (53), a scooter-borne couple were rushing their sick granddaughter to the hospital and tried to veer around a pothole, when they came under the wheels of a bus. The couple died on the spot while their granddaughter sustained minor injuries. “I didn’t know what to do at that time. I had lost both my parents, and I listened to the lawyers who filed a complaint about the accident. They told me to file a hit-and-run case. Six years have passed, no arrests were made nor was any action taken against the driver of the truck,” he said.

Responding to why lawyers often advise their clients not to push for compensation from BBMP or even mention potholes, advocate and member secretary of Karnataka State Legal Services Authority, Jaishankar said, “It is easier to claim compensation through amended Motor Vehicle Act than to file a lawsuit against BBMP.” Under the Act, the compensation payable for victims in a hit and run out of the scheme fund under Section 161 has been enhanced to Rs 2 lakh from Rs 25,000 in case of death and to Rs 50,000 from Rs 12,500 in case of bodily injury.

No provisions in road safety laws to hold civic agency culpable

In the face of increasing fatalities due to the existence of potholes, there has been a pressing demand to hold the civic body accountable and subject to criminal prosecution. But the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and all other criminal statutes currently in effect in the country make no mention of pothole-related injuries and fatalities. The existing road safety laws under the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act do not contain any clauses that would guarantee road authorities would be held accountable for errors committed in the engineering, design, and maintenance of roads.

Despite the absence of means of criminal prosecution, avenues for seeking compensation from the civic body do exist. As the city corporation bears responsibility for maintaining the city's roadways, any accidents caused by dangerous circumstances that resulted in fatalities or serious injuries could be blamed on their negligence. These corporations represent the government as its agents, making them liable in court under the ‘principle of vicarious liability’. The claim being that if the municipal corporation had been more watchful, then similar accidents might have been prevented.

In order to seek compensation through BBMP, victims or their families would have to file a suit against the civic body. But families rarely pursue this avenue. Jaishankar attributed it to families grieving from loss. “After losing someone, families are often devastated to even file a complaint, let alone a lawsuit,” he said.

What does it take to fill a pothole?

To ensure standardised road construction, maintenance and management, the Indian Road Congress (IRC) established over 100 sets of norms, including those for patching potholes. It has been impossible to make sure that these regulations have been followed because there has been no uniform statute or law on road engineering, building, or maintenance. To solve this problem, a retired BBMP chief engineer curated guidelines for road construction and repair based on IRC in 2009. According to those guidelines, for a shallow pothole, the area should be cut into a rectangular shape with vertical edges and clean out all the debris. Bitumen should then be applied to the pothole's bottom surface. Bitumen, which serves as a seal coat for vertical surfaces, should again be applied by hand brush after pouring well-compacted open-graded premix.

For a deep pothole, a square shape should be cut out at the site, followed by the layering of dry-hard compact aggregates, the application of primer and track coatings, and in addition a hand-brushed coat of open-graded premix bitumen as a seal. The guidelines further mention that before reopening the surface to traffic after repairs, it should be lightly dusted with sand to prevent the wheels from dragging away the coated material. “During the monsoon, an emulsion is necessary, and a ready mix is required for corridors,” it stated.

BBMP's guidelines for road construction and repair

According to civic activist Nagesh Aras, “If BBMP followed the guidelines; we would not be able to detect the existence of a previous pothole in the site. The guidelines don’t mention adding jelly (crushed stones) into the potholes. But in the name of jelly, BBMP uses construction and demolition (C&D) waste to fill a pothole. As a result of this, the C&D waste scatters everywhere, and there’s a formation of a pothole in no time,” he alleged.

BS Prahlad said that potholes were being filled in accordance with guidelines using the ready mix from their own plant. He said, “We have trained engineers who know what we are doing. Ideally, it should stay intact for 12 months or more. But the roads in the city are subjected to heavy stress and strain because of which the potholes reappear on roads quicker.”

Timeline of court case

A PIL filed by Vijayan Menon and others is being heard by the High Court since 2015. The court has asked BBMP to produce information, file status reports, and compliance reports, and develop a workable system that can monitor road quality over the period of seven years in an effort to fix the issue of accountability. The BBMP has been admonished on numerous occasions for non-compliance and a careless attitude toward resolving the issues brought up in the court-monitored investigation. The court also considered holding BBMP in contempt for expressing unwillingness to consider compensations for pothole accidents.

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