On January 19, 2010, retired engineer Gangadhara Tilak Katnam was manoeuvering his old car on a potholed road in Hyderabad, in an attempt to reach his new office on time. It was his first day on the job, which he took up after retiring as senior section engineer, South Central Railway, Vijayawada. Although he tried his best, Tilak could not avoid a pool of muddy water, splashing it all over a little girl, who was on her way to school, accompanied by her mother. The girl’s starched uniform was ruined and so was her mother’s dress. Tilak apologised to them, but the incident continued to rankle him. So he ordered six truckloads of moram (a combination of mud, soil and gravel) paying from his own pocket, to fill the potholes on the stretch. A year and a half later, he quit his new job and took up filling potholes as a full-time engagement.
A number of accidents he witnessed, too, prompted Tilak to take up the new challenge. “The first one was in the Old City area, when a state transport bus rammed an auto, killing a person immediately,” he says. Tilak realised that if someone had filled the pothole, a life could have been saved. From then on, there was no turning back. “I used to spend Rs25,000 a month, but after the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation started providing repair materials, I spend around Rs15,000 of Rs20,000 that I receive as pension. My son takes care of my household financial needs,” he says. Tilak, 67, has filled 1,125 potholes in Hyderabad so far.
“When I tell police constables who note down details of road accidents, they are reluctant to record that they were caused by potholes,” says Tilak. He knows that if they did so, one of the sources of their illegal income will vanish. “Every time an accident takes place, they blackmail the driver and make money,” he says.
Tilak learnt how to fill potholes when he was a child. “The road repair gang would come to work at my village, Yernagudem in West Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh. Since we were poor, watching them work was quite the pastime for us,” he says. He now lives in Hydershakote, which is 15km from the main city, and not too far from the Golconda Fort. Since a number of gated communities are coming up in this area, it is not difficult to get stuff to fill up potholes from builders. Tilak also collects black tar mix material, which is removed from old roads and can be seen dumped on footpaths. He also buys such material from contractors.
After Tilak exhausted his savings for his pet cause and even defaulted on his insurance premium, his wife, Venkataswari, informed their son, Ravikiran, an IT professional in the US, about his new passion. Ravi was not happy initially when he heard how his father spent all his money. Back in Hyderabad, he was out one day on the streets with his father when they witnessed an accident at a major traffic island in the Gachibowli area, which was caused by poor road conditions. It dispelled Ravi's concerns and his doubt soon turned into support for his father's cause. “I never got a chance to meet freedom fighters or kings or presidents. But living with my father for years, I never felt the need to meet one. He is my guru and my hero,” says Ravi.
Ravi has developed an app through which people can give Tilak details about potholes. He has also created a website and a Facebook page for the cause. This led to the birth of Shramadaan, a voluntary initiative by which students and young people can meet and support Tilak's mission. Tilak, however, refuses to accept donations and spends all money out of his pocket. His daughter Akshita and all his other family members provide him all support in his endeavour.
Former municipal commissioner of Hyderabad, Krishna Babu, once tried to convince him that the municipal corporation would take up road repairs. But Tilak was unmoved. So, the commissioner decided to supply repair materials to him directly, thus helping Tilak save some money. But Tilak feels there is still scope for improvement. “The corporation did not send any labourers. The trucks would come, dump the material at some location and we have to ferry it by my car to the required place,” he says.
Tilak and his band of volunteers now plan to move into the interiors. And, Venkataswari remains concerned about his health, especially as he works long hours under the summer sun. Tilak laughs off his wife's concern, saying his only worry is about the repair material melting in the hot sun. But the intense physical labour and the harsh sun have had an effect on his health and he had a surgery in 2014. It was then that Ravi decided to take his parents to the US from where they are coming back next month.
Social media has worked wonders for Shramadaan. “Though I am in the US for another month, I am able to organise and coordinate from here. I receive information through email or Facebook messages and I direct my brother, Bhima Shankar Rao, to complete the task,” says Tilak. He is also assisted by volunteers like Sudhir Kumar, an engineer, who is a friend of Ravi. “I send out messages through websites hoping to get more volunteers for Tilak garu,” says Sudhir.
With his next project, he wants to remove beggars from footpaths and traffic signals. “I have many other projects in mind,” he says. “I want to control corruption, plant trees, stop wastage of food at functions and prevent rotting of food grains in Food Corporation of India godowns.” Tilak says by filling the potholes, he and his group help eliminate the sufferings of many families. “We must not stop doing the good work. If we do, then it would be the greatest crime and sin.”