In Pimpalgaon, a small village near Nashik on NH3, the first crop of grapes is being harvested. Yashwant Ganghurde, clad in a white dhoti and Gandhi topi, sits on a blue plastic sheet, supervising the grape picking and sorting.
His denim-clad agent sits nearby, atop a motorcycle of dubious parentage, fiddling with his cellphone and waiting to take delivery of the harvest. But Ganghurde, who started off as small-time farmer and now employs a dozen people, is not a happy man.
“The yield is half of what it was a year ago,” he says in Hindi. “A bad monsoon leaves less water. This also means that the grapes are less juicy and not of export quality.”
He murmurs vaguely that the government should do something about irrigation. Then he shrugs philosophically and gets back to the picking and sorting.
He is just one among the thousands of people who live along this road—the Mumbai-Agra national highway. It’s a vignette of the so-called glowing India story—of development in the hinterland, of growth and urbanization. But this is a growth that still depends on the vagaries of nature and coexists with poverty and corruption.
The NH3 is a remarkably smooth road all the way to Dhule, our destination after setting off from Mumbai. It would seem like a strange choice of an end point while mapping the socio-economic demographics along the road that connects two significant cities. But then, there was a restraint on time and finances.
Connecting people: The highway near Kasara Ghat on the Mumbai-Nashik route. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Many stretches on this route were relaid about two-three years ago, although the four-lane road starts only when you leave Mumbai. On the way, as the high-rises of the suburbs recede, construction activity and the realty business still remain the dominant themes until Kasara, the last stop for local trains.
Be it roads, malls, or housing complexes, including one called Shangri-la and a garishly painted Orange City Villa—all are being built frenetically, perhaps reflecting economic recovery.
After you pass Khardi, the start of the bush territory, the construction activity flags, albeit only till you reach the outskirts of Nashik. The weather changes from hot and humid to slightly chilly and dry, but the dust never leaves you. Neither do the forces of development, it seems.
You can’t look at the horizon in any direction and expect to see only trees or farms. There are cellphone towers dotting the highway, in tens of dozens, as far as the eye can see in all directions. Most of them have come up in the last four years, say residents.
For many of them, like Deepak Ramgowte, a farmer at Godhe, it’s an alternative source of income. Ramgowte says he gets Rs4,000 per month for renting out a small part of his land. It’s a 10-year contract and he feels a bit cheated because land prices have increased. But given the vagaries of the monsoon, he adds, at least it’s a steady income and he is able to afford luxuries such as satellite TV.
On the road:(clockwise from right) Workers sort grapes at a vineyard in Pimpalgaon; a rickshaw driver in Jhodage village in Nashik district; Sai Baba devotees walk towards Shirdi near Asangaon in Thane district; and a toppled truck in Malegaon.
That’s another striking feature—as you pass the smallest, most isolated villages on the way to Dhule. Most houses, including the shanties, boast of direct-to-home television, with cable TV having bypassed this region.
After one passes Nashik, industry and construction give way to agriculture. On this flat terrain, you see vineyards and fields of millet and onion. This is India’s Napa Valley, but unfortunately, the roadside dhabas neither serve wine, nor have they been able to escape the onslaught of paneer butter masala, a highway staple.
But for those dependent on agriculture, these are tough times, with all three crops of the region—grapes, onions and tomatoes—in difficulty. At Ozar, a small village, we spoke to a truck driver, Dhananjay, part of a group of 10-odd truckers washing their vehicles by the river, killing time. Dhananjay has waited four days, but is yet to get his cargo of onion—it’s just not available.
“Growth has been good the past couple of years, but things are a bit uncertain now with the (fallout of the) bad monsoon,” says an official of Axis Bank Ltd, which opened a branch here three years ago.
Still, agriculture has led to development in this area, says an official of HDFC Bank Ltd at Pimpalgaon.
This village, which has the thickest concentration of grape and onion farms in the region, has seen shops, schools and a few banks spring up in the past three years. The highway is being converted into four lanes and a cold storage depot is being constructed.
But this prosperity also brings officialdom and its tales of corruption. At an onion trader’s storage facility near the village, we aren’t allowed to take photographs because a picture published previously led to a tax raid.
“My income has increased in the past three years. But with the rise in prices of rice and onions, I have to pay double the bribe to the police and transport officers on the highway,” says Balwinder Singh, a trucker who is bringing potatoes from Agra to Mumbai.
As we reach the last stop, where NH3 crosses NH6, or the great eastern road that connects Surat to Kolkata, we encounter a gypsy family that travels to Rajkot in the non-monsoon season. The patriarch of the group, which stays in makeshift tents and makes baubles for a living, tells us how times are changing for the better. His name is Dhirubhai.
“Do you know about your famous namesake?” we ask. “Ambani,” he grins toothily as he returns to his wife, who is cooking fish and mutton for the eight-member family by the wayside.
Every highway has its own unique knack of connecting people.