The chaos under city streets, with everything from electric lines to sewage pipes haphazardly dumped together, is way scarier than the mess on the surface, finds Priya Ramani
Swati Ramanathan will tell you about all the shit you have to deal with if you want to build a world-class road in India. “The first principle my construction teacher taught me at Pratt (Institute of Design in the US) was that shit always goes down," says Ramanathan.
The public toilet on Bengaluru’s St Marks Road—the chaotic artery outside Koshy’s restaurant which is soon set to be urban India’s best road—releases its murky contents directly into the ground. Four metres below, when Ramanathan installed shiny new sewage pipes, all that gloop flowed back up into the new pipe, clogging it. The more shit they pumped, the more it flowed back up. Ramanathan is still grappling with the problem of getting that gunk out of the ground, so she can see her vision of an impeccably designed road with easily accessible channels for public utilities working seamlessly below its surface.
Roads get 80% of a city’s budget. That’s because in addition to ferrying us, they are the conduits for most utilities such as water, sewage, power, gas and phone lines. “Sewage is the deepest of all the public utilities below your road. It’s the oldest and the most hazardous of all," says Ramanathan. Everyone in Bengaluru knows her as one half of a couple who left their power jobs in the US and came back to work on citizenship and democracy matters through Janaagraha, a non-profit they set up almost 14 years ago with their savings.
Private citizens don’t usually get a chance to dabble in road works but if a qualified architect with impeccable street cred, one who has worked with you on many projects, hands you the design of a world-class road and pledges she’ll see it through at no cost to you, you would be silly to say no. So the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government cleared TenderSURE (Specifications for Urban Roads Execution), or what will likely be the template for future Indian road design, in 2012, and the present Congress state government is seeing the idea through. This ₹ 110-crore project (or ₹ 2 crore a travel lane where 60% of the cost is for the underground utilities) covers seven busy roads in Bengaluru’s central business district.
These are roads that will require NO DIGGING once they have been laid. I feel strongly about dug-up roads because I have seen them stalk the husband (and by default, me) wherever he has moved these past 15 years of marriage. He says it’s always been that way.
Kaushik Mukherjee, the chief secretary of Karnataka, the state’s top-ranking bureaucrat and one of Ramanathan’s two unwavering supporters (the other is her husband Ramesh), says at first he thought TenderSURE was just a name. “Then I realized it’s a fantastic idea that will ensure you don’t keep tinkering with the road," he says.
Of course this is India. Nobody reads the manual. Even as these new roads are being constructed, representatives of private telecom operators lie in wait until 4am, when a 2-hour window between shifts begins. They rush in, dig wherever they please, install their fibre-optic cables haphazardly, and finish up with cement (which they carry along). Tata, Reliance and Airtel are big offenders, says Ramanathan, adding that BSNL is a law unto itself. These companies don’t need to dig—they can just slide their cables through ducts provided especially for them under these beautifully re-engineered roads. But since they haven’t bothered to attend any of the meetings, they keep digging.
Private citizens do their bit too. “When we’re digging people throw their garbage into the pits, that’s how little they care about public property," says Ramanathan. Folks from the office buildings break the cement bollards in the middle of the night so they can park their cars on the wide pavements.
The chaos under our roads, Ramanathan has discovered, is way scarier than the mess on the surface. Often, municipal agencies dig roads because they can’t locate their pipes, and not because they are fixing the problem.
“It is a nightmare. The telecom lines are like the two-wheelers on our road, weaving in and out of every free square inch of space, the sewage is like the buses, bursting at the seams and seeping out everywhere. People connect their sewage to the storm- water drains, where the rainwater is supposed to go," she says, adding that 95% of the groundwater samples they analysed showed the presence of E. coli bacteria.
Sorry if you’re reading this with your Saturday morning cuppa, but you need a strong stomach if you want to be world class, a phrase our politicians are fond of overusing.
Among other things, Ramanathan has moved the drains against the kerb, added percolation pits for groundwater recharging so rainwater goes directly in there. At every 20m there are chambers for storm water, sewage, electricity. Streetlights and fibre-optic cables have their own ducts. This new system must be installed without damaging existing pipes. Since no department knows the exact location of many pipes, Ramanathan often encounters one that directly crosses her path.
It’s a minefield of defunct pipes, foundation stones and pieces of granite, big cement structures, sudden stagnant pools of water (if you don’t find the source of the seepage you can’t compact the earth and the footpath will sink). “All work stops when we encounter an obstacle and we have encountered hundreds," she says.
Big hurdles can result in a delay of up to 10 days and, each time, Ramanathan must redraw the design of the road (she’s at 2,980 drawings and counting). These are detailed architectural drawings, not the rough pen drawings road contractors usually receive, with just the width and length of the road marked.
Plus there’s the avalanche of criticism. Her inbox is full of nasty emails; residents visit her office to ensure that their parking spot will be protected or that a bus bay won’t come up in front of their building; year-long battles have been waged with every department, including the traffic police; the press about TenderSURE has been mostly negative, criticizing everything from the wide pavements and cycle tracks to the dust, the pace of construction (the same as any other city project where the municipality holds the purse strings) and the inconvenience to commuters.
The pavements were widened to include 100-year-old trees that were in the middle of the road. That resulted in headlines such as “Have you heard of a footpath that’s wider than the road? Welcome to Bengaluru."
“No matter what I do or how I design, there’s no winning but the criticism I got was shocking to me," says Ramanathan, who held meetings with citizens and officials before beginning work. The drawings were displayed at the local Rotary club. Mukherjee says most of the criticism is unfounded. “She has given her labour of love free of cost. It’s been great to meet an unselfish person on a mission," he says.
The transformation is visible on the nearly complete St Marks Road. And people are slowly beginning to stand up for TenderSURE. “I know the tide is turning when I suddenly find everyone trying to take ownership," says Ramanathan. The sustainability of TenderSURE, as Mukherjee points out, will depend on citizens taking ownership. “If people want it, they will help make it happen."
Priya Ramani will share what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight.