How many times have you joked about a car drive feeling like a bullock cart ride thanks to potholes on Indian roads? It is common practice for us to rant about the poor condition of the roads and our tax money going to waste but once in a million, comes an individual who goes beyond mere complaining and is so irked by the injustice that they decide to take matters into their own hands.
One such hero is Gangadhara Tilak Katnam from Hyderabad. This retired Indian Railways employee has emerged as a messiah to his people. The story began in 2010 when Mr. Katnam had newly joined a private-sector job after retiring from the Railways. He was on his way to his first day at the new job when his car invariably entered one of the many puddles on the road. Since it was rainy season at the time, the pothole was filled with dirty water, and Mr. Katnam ended up drenching some kids nearby.
“One day, I was driving my car when suddenly it fell into a pothole and splashed the muddy water filled in it onto a few street kids nearby. I felt so ashamed. I spent Rs. 5,000 to buy the necessary material and filled that pothole,” recalls Gangadhara.
Any other regular person would have probably sped up and zoomed past, or some others would have stopped and apologized. In the case of Mr. Katnam, he found himself thinking about the incident long after the incident was over. He had apologized to the children but his heart knew that something more had to be done.
And therefore, Mr. Katnam hired two laborers, bought six trucks of road fixing material, and filled the pothole. Over the next two days, he went around the city fixing more than 60 potholes. The next time he passed the children and their parents on their school run, they recognized him and stopped his car to thank him.
In the subsequent years of his life, Mr. Katnam managed to fill somewhere around 1125 potholes using single-handedly, one-by-one. In the process, he exhausted his entire pension fund received for his years of service in the Railways.
Each morning, he would begin his day with a spade, two brooms, a wire brush, a crowbar and a sack of gravel in the backseat of his car, hunting for potholes. In this way, he would spend Rs. 500 a day on fuel. Starting with 5 bags he now has 8-10 gunny bags with tar mixed gravel in the backseat of his car. At first, he would simply collect gravel dumped on the roads, but very soon he started buying it from contractors by paying from his own pocket.
Born in a farmer’s family in Yernagudem village in the West Godavari district, Katnam is now around 75 years old. Right when he had started taking his mission a little seriously, he came across two very tragic news pieces. One was about a young man who had lost both his limbs in a motorbike accident, and the second was about an auto that had crashed into a bus, injuring the passengers within. In both cases, the cause was found to be potholes.
As per Mr. Katnam, this was the turning point in his life. It was then that he decided the true gravity of his work and his mission. So, he decided to quit his new job at the private software firm that was paying him decently, and instead, once again devote the next years of his life to public service, this time out of sheer goodwill and humanity.
This was not always a lauded effort. For instance, Mr. Katnam’s own wife, Venkateshwari, was against her husband’s ideas. Firstly, because of his old age, she did not wish to see her husband toil like a laborer all day. And secondly, owing to the fact that he was spending all his money on his mission. Subsequently, she reached out to their son, Ravi, who settled in the USA, to talk his father out of his plans.
Mr. Katnam recalls that when his son came back to India, the duo was arguing about this very same matter by the road and at that very juncture, a young man on a motorcycle, skid due to a pothole but faced no injuries. “It was miraculous,” says Mr. Katnam. This incident changed his son’s perceptions, and he finally began to understand Mr. Katnam’s views.
Not only did the family then agree to allow Mr. Katnam to pursue his mission, but also, his son began financing him. Ravi even created an app through which people can report to Mr. Katnam the location of the potholes, saving him the effort of scouting for them.
Ravi even created a Facebook page about his father’s work, and that is how he gained his due recognition. His Facebook page is full of appreciative posts. In fact, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan even felicitated him, and this is something that Mr. Katnam is particularly proud of. And he does like compliments; “As people started telling me that I was doing a good job, I got hooked,” he says.
That being said, his objective to start his mission was neither fame nor money, it was nothing more than the steel-will of a common man who is agitated and frustrated by the helplessness of his situation, and that of his fellow citizens. But as word spread, fame did pour in, and so did donations. Mr. Katnam however, has a strict policy of not accepting donations, especially from folks outside of India who’ve learned of his work.
What he does appreciate, however, is volunteering! Over the years, as his work attracted attention many people have come forward to volunteer and help. In fact, he even called it a full-fledged campaign called “Shramdaan” which means the act of offering one service and labor. It has attracted many other citizens. From June 2012, the GHMC (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) started supplying BT MiX material to Mr. Katnam. It also prompted civic authorities to start supplying road repair material to him free of cost.
As per Mr. Katnam, we often tend to undermine the gravity of the situation. He once said in an interview with a media house that each day in Hyderabad, several people are killed or maimed in totally avoidable road accidents. “Potholes also cause invisible injuries like leg and back pain.” It causes a good-hearted samaritan as Mr. Katnam much pain to see that so many people die or are injured each day because of these “avoidable accidents” caused due to the carelessness and inaction of the government officials.
In an in”Every abandoned shoe tells a story,” he says, pointing to a discarded slipper on the side of the road. The child was injured and some passers-by took them in their car to the hospital. Because time was crucial to save the little girl’s life, they didn’t stop to pick up her slipper.”
One more specialty about this ‘Road Doctor’ is that he remembers the exact location of every pothole filled by him till date. “We also go back to monitor the wear and tear,” he says. In stark contrast, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC), the civic body, uses 30 trucks of bitumen tar or BT mix material on a daily basis to fill up potholes, but keeps no records.
“I want the government to take prompt actions because potholes are very dangerous. In Hyderabad, GHMC is utilizing 30 trucks of BT mix material daily to fill the potholes.” Mr. Katnam had said in an interview with BehtarIndia in 2015. Not one to mince words, he has fearlessly insisted on this being a responsibility and a shortcoming on the part of the various central and state governments.
Further expressing his wish to talk to politicians and bureaucrats himself, to make them understand the importance of solving the smaller issues that bother their people on a daily basis and in a much deeper sense, before making heavyweight promises.
Among other things he envisions for his cause, is a toll-free number posted in public places that will get callers directly in touch with a city engineer who’ll give out his or her name, and increase accountability of the officials. He also wishes for help from the police when it comes to scouting out potholes.
At his age, Mr. Katnam, armed with orange gloves, cordons off the roads with red flags and manages the traffic. Even after 30 minutes of hard work with debris, gravel, and tar under the scorching Sun of Hyderabad, he is perspiring but his spirit is not dampened; in a true celebration of the spirit of the common man, he turns around to take a selfie to add to his collection of filled potholes!
That’s Gangadhara Tilak Katnam for you- exemplary, limitless, and inspiring.