Unselfish Selfies: 67-Year-Old Retiree Vows to Make India’s Streets Safer

He’s smoothing out his city’s commute, one pothole at a time.

(Photo: Courtesy Shramadaan/Facebook)

Jul 22, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Ali Swenson is an editorial intern at TakePart. She is editor-in-chief of Loyola Marymount University’s news outlet, the Los Angeles Loyolan, and has worked in nonprofit media.

Retired railway worker and engineer Gangadhara Tilak Katnam spends his monthly pension on gravel and tar.

He spends his days in his Fiat, perusing the streets of Hyderabad, India, for potholes he can fill. Then, one by one, taking about an hour for each, he patches them up. Each time he hears about a pothole or sees one while driving, he clears the space of debris and stagnant water, pours a mix of gravel and tar, waits for it to set, and marks the area with red caution flags. Then, delightfully, he takes a selfie with the mended road.

In the past five years, Tilak has filled 1,127 potholes.

For a 67-year-old retiree, this manual labor may seem intense. But daily life in Hyderabad can be a bumpy ride—and Tilak is passionate about fixing that.

Each year, standing water and drainage issues from monsoons cause hundreds of deep potholes in the city’s pavement—local police estimate 70 percent of roads are affected. Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians face a high risk of vehicle damage, accidents, and even death every time they hit the streets.

Five years ago, Tilak’s car fell into a pothole on this road, splashing a young girl with muddy water. He proceeded to fix every pothole on the 300-meter road. (Photo: Courtesy Shramadaan/Facebook)

An encounter five years ago made Tilak realize the importance of improving road safety. On his way to work, his car ran into a pothole, splashing a young girl and her mother with dirty water. The girl’s starched school uniform was splattered with mud. Tilak’s frantic apologies were not received well.

Tilak and other members of Shramadaan pose in front of a pothole they worked together to fill. (Photo: Courtesy Shramadaan/Facebook)

“The incident pained me a lot,” he told TakePart. The next day, he purchased six truckloads of gravel and filled all the potholes in the 300-meter stretch of road.

A few weeks later, Tilak witnessed two more accidents caused by potholes, one resulting in serious injury and the other in death. He complained to police, but they didn’t take his concerns seriously. He saw then that his own action was needed.

After first tackling the cracked roads alone, he started a volunteer organization called Shramadaan—meaning “contribution of labor” in Hindi—to get more people involved. Unable to concentrate at work with all the damaged roads that needed fixing, he left his job and began filling potholes full time.

Tilak says he won’t stop until the government steps in and takes responsibility for fixing the roads. “I will go on doing this work until it draws the attention of an Indian politician who can consider my suggestion…to ensure pothole-free roads in our nation,” he said.