Road Number 3, Malahi Pakdi, Kankerbagh. People gather around a pothole near the market, curious about the vehicle that has just driven round the corner. It’s not often that a pothole gets this kind of attention and it’s up to Lakshmi Bind, the man in charge of the GPS-enabled vehicle, to clear the air. “It’s a road ambulance. We are going to fix this pothole,” he says.
This road ambulance is the first of 76 such vehicles that are being deployed to maintain 9,064 km of Bihar’s district roads and state highways, part of a plan by the state government to patrol roads under the state’s new Road Maintenance Policy. Bind works for a company that has been given a five-year contract to maintain roads in the Patna town area — a 20-km stretch from Mahatma Gandhi Setu to Jadgeo Path.
The state government’s Road Construction Department has a multi-layered system to monitor the road ambulance — from the junior engineer right up to the department secretary. “Before we start our rounds, we get briefed by Division Executive Engineer C M K Mishra,” says Bind.
It’s already 10.30 am and Bind and his team of eight get down to work straight away. Driver Santosh Kumar ‘Chhotu’ inspects the vehicle. Bind, the team leader, sports a white helmet and a fluorescent green jacket while the rest of the team is in bright orange.
The ambulance is a mean machine, a compact unit that has containers for sand and stone, an air compressor, a road cutter, a machine to mix stone chips and emulsion and a plate vibrator that is a modified road roller. “Since we cannot carry molten coal-tar in road ambulances, we use emulsion that works on cold technology,” says Bind. The vehicle also has a stretcher in case they come across an accident and need to take someone to hospital.
By now, there are enough people crowding around the ambulance to cause a minor traffic jam. Someone in the crowd says, “Oh, this is just a coolie”, drawing a few laughs and sniggers. Another man wants to know if the ambulance can drive up to his house and fix the lane in his “mohalla”. Bind ignores the wisecracks and goes about his work.
He asks for the back door of the road ambulance to be opened and a stair slides out. Bind uses a chalk and marks out the pothole. Workers deploy the road cutter and within 20 minutes, the affected portion is cut and dug up. An air compressor does the rest of the job and sucks in loose tar and mud. Bind now asks one of the workers to spray the emulsion mix over the patch.
Soon, New Patna Division Sub-Divisional Officer B K Sahay turns up at the spot along with junior engineer Jainul Abdeen Khan. They are here to inspect the quality of work, after which they turn in a compliance report.
“Make sure the concrete doesn’t jut out,” says Sahay. Bind nods and calls for the plate vibrator. The machine rolls over the now-shiny black patch. One of the workers sprinkle some sand and it’s all done. The entire exercise takes over an hour and a half. Bind shouts out to the team, asking them to get all the machines back into the ambulance. The traffic on the road begins easing a bit.
By now, their curiosity satiated, the crowd turns cynical. “I have never seen something like this. But there are bigger potholes in the town that need to be fixed,” says Shanker Ram, a resident of Kankerbagh. “Bhai, chunav ka samay hai, isliye aesa chakachak machine dekh rahe ho (They have got this shiny vehicle out because it’s election time),” says an elderly man who walks away without stopping to give his name.
Bind says the traffic snarls and the crowd slow them down, so they prefer to work at night. “Ever since we started operations last month, we have repaired over a hundred potholes near the airport and at several places along Bailey Road. On an average, we repair 15-20 potholes in a day,” he says.
The team has at least five more potholes to fix in the area and Bind says he won’t finish before late evening.
RCD secretary Pratyaya Amrit says, “Road maintenance has been a big problem for years. We wanted to put in place a policy in which a construction company or contractors can be made accountable for maintaining roads round the year.”