Normally the trip to Bareilly from Delhi by the national highway to Lucknow should take not more than 5 hours. But no one believes it will. At railway crossings, sweaty seasoned drivers emerge out of their vehicles, hitching their trousers or lungis, and after a collective, almost mandatory, spitting of tobacco juices, colourful expletives and scratching of groins, begin to yawn and stretch till the inevitable jam gets sorted out. For the hapless travellers trapped inside cars, buses, trucks and tractor trolleys, the stuffiness and stench are not the worst. The worst is that no one quite knows what next. How long are people supposed to wait like this? An hour? 24 hours? A lifetime? And really what are they all doing here? Why don’t they opt for trains instead? All unanswerable questions.
Welcome to India’s great leveller, the interstate highway.
If one believes government reports, in the first five years of this decade, India’s National Highway Development Programme (NHDP) has expanded 10-fold. But crossing the last 16 miles to Bareilly on national highway 74 can still take 7-12 hours or even more on a really bad day. NHDP itself has had five chairmen in as many years. One of them was asked to go, rumour runs, because he arrived 35 minutes late for a parliamentary committee meeting. Ironies. Ironies.
Inside Bareilly, a 500-year-old town on the banks of the Ram Ganga river, with a population touching one million, the traffic is pure chaos. Half-finished culverts, unfinished flyovers with broken railings, cows, stalled trucks, overflowing drains, all contribute to cacophonous jams every day. Car owners in most towns the size of Bareilly, when caught in traffic jams, are advised to abandon their cars and walk to their destination if they are in a hurry. And since there are no walkable pavements within sight, pedestrians must dart in and out of the mess like scared rabbits. Yet, people report for work, go see movies on a holiday, shop in malls and eat with obvious relish at wayside eateries with their families. They have abandoned all hope of having navigable inner city roads one day. As trucks from Haryana often state philosophically on the rear, yeh toh yun hi chalegi (it will always be like this only).
Actually the entire experience of ordinary citizens in small-town India teaches them that no advantage accrues from asking questions. While special economic zones (SEZs) are being scrapped on grounds of shortage of land and water, enormous stone gardens featuring stone memorials to founders of the party in power will be routinely built on scarce public land with public money, replete with water fountains and fake rivers.
Many of these are doomed to lie unfinished for years if the party that commissioned them loses in the elections. Then they cause more traffic snarls and accidents, and the media reports these routinely as the day’s traffic jam and traffic casualties. All know that raising questions about the follies of the ruling class or citizens’ rights can be a dangerous exercise and may unleash sudden misfortune upon them—like one Dr Binayak Sen of Chhattisgarh, who was picked up for “questioning” by the authorities and detained for over two years. The art of formulating intelligent questions and sharp insights is gradually becoming extinct. Stories filed by small-town reporters recount events just as they are supposed to be: the honourable block pramukh (chief) greeted the party supremo on his or her birthday; the honourable district magistrate’s wife inaugurated the best saree store in town; the honourable member of the state legislative assembly extends his whole-hearted support to the latest poverty alleviation scheme named after the supremo’s mentor, and so on.
The brave new Union road transport and highways minister, Kamal Nath, recently said that to expedite the building of India’s national highways he is willing to change the draft of the model concession agreement (MCA). It is not the Gita or Bible, he told the press, which cannot be changed. But it takes two to tango. We know how no work could be awarded by NHDP for close to a year owing to lack of cooperation from several state governments. Hostility or sheer apathy has created all sorts of problems, from snarls in the acquisition of necessary land for building highways and endless litigation to work being awarded to contractors who would not meet deadlines. Will a changed MCA also change the way state governments function in India?
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org