The year was 2015. It was the rainy month of July. 16-year-old Prakash Bilhore was riding pillion on a motorbike with his brother Ram on their way back home. He had only cleared Class 10 boards and was returning after submitting an admission form to a college in Bhandup, Mumbai.
The duo took shelter on the way, near Powai, since it started raining heavily. Once the water receded, they embarked on the route again.
When they reached Seepz near the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli link road, the street was clogged with rainwater. Their motorbike got stuck in a pothole submerged under water. Before they even had the chance to react or pull their bike out, the vehicle had dug into the ground.
Ram was riding the motorbike and was thrown at a distance of five feet, and Prakash was thrown over his head and onto the street ten feet away.
Pedestrians stood clicking pictures but no one came to their aid. Ram who was still disoriented had lacerations on his chin, while his forehead was bleeding. But the helmet saved him from any major injuries. Prakash, on the other hand, had fallen with such an impact that he lay unconscious. Ram dialled his friends from the area and rushed Prakash to the hospital.
Dadarao Bilhore, Prakash’s father, who runs a grocery store in Andheri, was preparing to break the holy Ekadashi fast when the call arrived.
“Baba, we are hurt. We fell off the bike. We are rushing to the Holy Spirit Hospital, they told me,” Dadarao Bilhore recalls in an exclusive interview with The Better India.
“I told the family that the boys had fallen off the bike. When they asked to accompany me, I told them that I didn’t think the injuries would be that bad. So I left alone. I received a second call when I was halfway to the hospital. They told me my Prakash had succumbed to a brain haemorrhage. Ram was being treated; he was shaken up and critical. At that moment, my world had come crashing down. Only the other day, he was shopping online telling me how he wanted branded clothes for college. And at 16, my son was dead.”
Dadarao let his grief take a backseat. He couldn’t save Prakash, but he was adamant to save Ram. He did not tell his family or his relatives or even Ram that Prakash has passed. They waited until Ram stabilised. After 24 hours, the family was informed. The hardest hit was Prakash’s mother.
“I grabbed my husband by the shirt and yelled, ‘You promised to bring my son back the same way he left home last morning. The body lying wrapped in a white cloth is not my son. Give me my son back’,” she tells me as we sit in their new home in Goregaon.
28th July 2018 will be Prakash’s third death anniversary, she tells me, wiping the brimming tears with her pallu.
Even as the grief of losing their son was tearing them apart, Dadarao decided to do something nobody expected. Armed with broken paver blocks, gravel, stones and shovel, he started filling every pothole he witnessed within one month of Prakash’s passing.
Since August 2015 to date, he has filled over 554 potholes and has been given the moniker ‘Pothole Dada of Mumbai’.
It wasn’t just his son’s death but repetitive cases that bothered him, like the accident of another mother-daughter duo in Ambernath, where the mother died on the spot, and a Bandra couple, where the wife died after falling off the vehicle due to a pothole.
“I observed how authorities waited until someone died to fill potholes and file FIRs. I couldn’t let any more people die like Prakash. I decided to do it on my own. Using broken paver block, mud and stones, I started filling potholes. When I saw cars and motorists easily passing over them, I thought I should continue it. And so my journey began.
When someone asked me why I fill potholes I tell them, I have lost my kid, I don’t want you to lose yours. It is a tribute to my son. Whenever I fill one pothole, I feel I have saved someone. My son didn’t return, but somebody else’s son will go home safe. So what if my clothes get stained, or my arms get muddy? It doesn’t matter.”
Most potholes that he fills are on the left side of the road and over four to five feet wide. When asked if he gets criticised for making the BMC lethargic, he quips, “By the time a pothole is reported, it takes between 15 to 20 days for the authorities to fill it as per their procedure. Anybody could get hurt during that time. And so, I thought, why don’t I utilise my energies to give them a functional fix till then. For me, it is shramdaan. And I think that if we all join hands to fix potholes, not only Mumbai, but even India will become pothole-free. All it requires is ten minutes of your time. Only your hands and legs will get dirty. But the satisfaction you feel after filling it up is unmatchable. It is like saving a life.”
In a message to motorists who he refers to as bike veers of Mumbai, he joins his hands and requests them not to speed. “Please wear helmets and even if you are riding with another person, invest in an extra helmet for them or tell them to wear their own. I regret not giving Prakash a helmet, even though he was riding pillion.”
Remembering Prakash, he says, “He was the only one in our family who studied in an English-medium school. We had big dreams for him. He would teach me to reply to customers in English. He was never embarrassed that his father was a vegetable vendor. Just a month before his accident, he went to Crawford and got a set of eight CCTV cameras for the store. All the clothes he ordered online for college continued to get delivered at home after his death, twisting the knife that had dug deep into our hearts. He may have gone, but the cameras he installed continued to be the third eye guarding our shop. It’s like he is looking after us.”
It’s been three years since the incident snatched Prakash and there has been no respite for the Bilhores. Several trips to the high court, police station, BMC offices, continued to no avail. He has filed an FIR case against the BMC officials and the contractor responsible for the maintenance, but they were out on bail. The pothole was dug due to some construction work and no barricades or signs had been placed as a warning at the site. The case is in the Borivali District Court.
“Justice is not delivered, it is earned. I will fight for my son. Many others have started filing cases for compensations after our case. And I hope the authorities will take the required action.”
Another outcome of Bilhore’s efforts was the ‘Fill in the Potholes Project’, a citizen group in Mumbai which developed a mobile app – Spothole and has been willing to collaborate with BMC, to fill the potholes together.
The app uses three basic features already available in any smartphone — mobile camera, GPS and 3G Internet and thus enables citizens to report the location of a pothole along with the photo, which accomplishes half the job. All that the BMC has to do is fill those potholes spotted by the citizens.
Funded and developed by common Mumbaikars, Dadarao reveals how the BMC has still not responded to this unique partnership model which could help fix potholes quickly.
“The BMC continues to dig several roads for laying electric, water or gas pipes. But most times, these are not closed on time. My suggestion to them is not to dig several places, but have a separate area allotted to lay these underground pipes and wires, so it doesn’t inconvenience everyday Mumbaikars.”
Today, hundreds of people are joining Dadarao in his mission of making not just Mumbai, but also India pothole free, one of whom is Hyderabad’s renowned senior citizen and retired railway employee, Bala Gangadhar Tilak. He has filled 1,500 potholes till date and was bestowed the title of being the ‘Pride of Telangana’.
Dadarao has planned a small ritual on July 28th for his son, Prakash’s third death anniversary. A day after, on 29th July, alongside non-profit Ample Missiion and other Mumbaikars, he will fill potholes near Seepz, where his son met with the accident.
If you want to join Dadarao in this mission, get in touch with him on Facebook here or connect to him on WhatsApp at 9869930772.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)