Yes, There Is A Solution To Mumbai’s Pothole Menace

Santa Cruz to Delhi : 1 hr 45 min

Santa Cruz to Borivali : 2 hrs

The above may raise eyeballs for many but for a Mumbaikar commuting on this 16 km stretch on the 8-lane Mumbai-Delhi National Highway, the above is now an everyday story.

Traffic is a global problem but in terms of quality of roads, Mumbai has probably lost the right to be called a metro city. Tonnes of money are spent in this city on construction of roads but it is that one pothole that determines the speed of the traffic. The day for a Mumbaikar ends with cursing the road contractor and wondering at the sheer waste of man hours.

Many expect investment in public transportation like metro rail network will reduce travel time significantly. However, global experience has shown that in absence of efficient last mile connectivity investment in metro rails does not deliver desired results.

BMC is working on various technical innovations to find solution to the problem of potholes, which is good; however, the core of the problem is not just finding the best technology to fill the potholes but to develop a system that ensures there are very few incidences of potholes.

The Government and BMC are also working on improving transparency in the Road Contracts which many believe is the key reason for bad roads. But consider this, there are roads Mumbai that do not get damaged for years and there are roads that need repair every year. The monsoon has no reported road-bias; the system is also equally transparent for all contracts. So there are definitely, issues beyond transparency that need to be addressed.

Improved transparency can definitely reduce costs but Mumbaikars also need quality & accountability. What is, therefore, required is a tectonic change in the way things are currently done. Before we discuss that, let us have a look at the way the system stands now.

The Current System:

The first issue with the current system is there is large number of small sized contracts. Every year, huge manpower is involved in preparation of such tenders, evaluation of tenders, issue of Work Orders, monitoring performance etc. and yet citizens find the output below expectation.

Secondly, in case of problems with roads, citizens raise their grievances with the Municipal Corporator, who lays the blame on the municipal officers, who lay the blame on the road contractor. The decoupling of the client (i.e. Citizens) and the ultimate service provider (i.e. the contractor) prevents the pressure of accountability getting transferred to the service provider.

Thirdly, in comparison, when service providers of other utility services like power, telecom, cable TV fail, what comes to our mind immediately is Dish TV, Vodafone, Airtel, Tata Power, Reliance et al but when our car feels the pain in a pothole, is there any name that comes to our mind ? We expect 24×7 service from other service providers and in most cases we do get it. The key reasons for this accountability is because they have a ‘brand’ to protect. Do road contractors have any such pressure?

Can BMC ensure such high level of accountability and also a superior road quality?

Looking Forward:

During FY 16-17, BMC plans to spend approx. Rs 3,500 cr towards road construction and repairs. The total amount during the next five years would be approx. Rs 20,000 crore. Now, if BMC divides Mumbai in five zones and issues five year comprehensive road contracts (repair, maintenance and construction of roads), each zone would be Rs 4000 cr contract…!!! Sufficient not just to attract national players but also international players.

The total road length of Mumbai is 2000 km. This means Rs 10 cr / km for the contractor. A new four-lane highway costs Rs 20 cr /km, so a Repair, Maintenance and part-reconstruction contract at half this price surely seems a very lucrative contract.

Rs 4000 cr would provide enough incentive to the contractor to invest in technology and purchase of machines that can construct fast and import high quality raw material. Economies of scale would mean efficient deployment of labour and other resources. Small contracts suffer from high mobilization and high dismantling costs. Five year fixed contract will provide huge savings on these fronts too. Lastly instead of awarding and managing over one thousand contracts, BMC would need to award and monitor only five contracts. The contractors will also save the bidding cost.

To improve the accountability, BMC could insist the contractor to display his brand name, logo, helpline number, social media page, relationship manager, etc. at different places in the zone. A five-year contract with his name displayed everywhere would build a sense of ownership a high level of commitment for the contractor. Moreover, since consumers would easily be able to compare the performance across zones, the contractor will always be on toes to ensure good quality roads on a 24×7 basis, like any other utility service provider.

Lastly, publicly available data on social media (as uploaded by consumers) will provide enough grounds for BMC to disqualify non-performing contractors from renewals. And to incentivize quality, BMC can even think of giving a 10% price advantage for renewal contracts. Contractors will then find it rewarding to build roads that last long.

Detailing such tenders may have many challenges like problems with multiple utilities (electrical/telecom cables, sewerage, storm water et al), dealing with local power centers, etc. Also possibly there may be better solutions than suggested above or may be BMC needs to first start with a small portion and then extend to the entire city or may ten zones are better than five zones but what is sure that with the current scale and size of the city, incrementalism will not bear fruits. Only a systemic change can bring about desired benefits. The road ahead is tough but the right turn could possibly result in a smooth ride.

Deepesh Salgia, Director, Shapoorji Pallonji Group