As a pothole claims another life, a question: Who is responsible for maintaining Kerala roads?

Protests over the death have targeted the NHAI and the state PWD, but they together manage less than 20 percent of the state's roads.

BySreerag PS

Published Aug 09, 2022 | 8:15 PMUpdatedAug 10, 2022 | 7:55 AM

Kerala roads

Kerala’s roads, more specifically its potholes, claimed yet another victim last week.

Hashim, 52, a resident of Manjali in Paravoor, was driving home on his two-wheeler when it hit a pothole and crashed into the divider, throwing him onto the road beyond, the police said. A vehicle, heading in the opposite direction, presumed to be a truck, ran over him. The police are yet to trace the truck.

The death of Hashim, who managed his brother’s restaurant in Angamaly, has sparked numerous protests against the poor condition of roads in the state.

Though most of the protests were directed at the state government, not all roads in Kerala are constructed and maintained by the Public Works Department (PWD). There are several other agencies involved.

The Edapally-Mannuthi stretch of road on which Hashim died, for instance, is a part of NH 544 and is supposed to be maintained by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI).

The NHAI, incidentally, filled up and repaired the pothole that caused Hashim’s death soon after the incident.

Distribution of roads in Kerala

Economic Review of 2020, a document published by the State Planning Board, details the agency-wise distribution of roads in Kerala in 2019-2020.

The roads built and maintained by the local self-governments constitute around 80 percent of the total roads in Kerala — 2,65,421 km of roads are under the various panchayaths in the state. Apart from allocation of funds, the state government is not directly involved in the maintenance or development of these roads.

PWD roads, which come directly under the state’s Ministry of Transport, constitute 18 percent of the total road network and carry nearly 80 percent of the road traffic.

The total length of roads maintained by PWD is about 31,812 km, of which 4,341 (13.65 percent) are State Highways and 27,470 km (86.35 per cent) are Major District Roads (MDRs).

According to a report by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, there are 11 National Highways running through the state, having a total length of 1,781.6 km. These highways connect major cities in the state.

Other roads in Kerala fall under other agencies such as different municipalities, corporations, the Forest Department, the Irrigation Department, the railways, and the electricity department.

The political debate

In the wake of Hashim’s death, opposition leader VD Satheesan criticised the miserable conditions of Kerala’s roads. He alleged that the pre-monsoon works of the PWD were not done on time.

PA Mohammed Riyas, the Minister for PWD and Tourism, responded to the criticism by calling the opposition leader’s allegation “baseless”. He accused Satheesan of advocating for the Union government.

According to Riyas, the contractors are solely responsible for the potholes on the national highways and NHAI and the central government are scared to take action against such contractors.

The police have registered a case against NHAI and its contractors over the death of Hashim.

The court has its say

The widespread protests over the latest death prompted the Kerala High Court to take note of the case, saying it could not let the roads of the state to become “killing fields”.

The court directed the NHAI to conduct an internal enquiry into the incident, and also take necessary steps to fill all potholes within a week.

Reminding district collectors of their duty as heads of the District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA), the court also sought action against the engineers and contractors responsible for the poor condition of the roads.