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An expressway outside New Delhi mirrors India’s problems and promise

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Gurgaon, INDIA — Laptop bag in one hand and Blackberry in the other, investment banker Saurabh Chawla slid into his black Mercedes-Benz one morning and headed to his job in the Indian capital.

He cruised past luxury hotels, malls and glass-fronted IT companies on an eight-lane suburban expressway but then hit a sea of vehicles crawling toward a tollgate.

That is where order breaks down and road manners die.

In a mad dash to reach the tollbooth, vehicles begin to weave desperately between lanes to get a few car-lengths ahead. Cars move two-abreast in narrow lanes. Others honk nonstop. Arguments break out. Drivers paying with cash clog the smart-tag lane. Vehicles topple plastic traffic cones and painted drums. Traffic policemen whistle at cars in vain.

The rush-hour commute can look like a gladiatorial contest in the stretch between New Delhi and Gurgaon, a booming suburb.

“Sometimes I wait for 45 minutes in the line just to pay the toll” of about 38 cents, said Chawla, 47, looking out of his car window. “It is utter madness and dangerous confusion.”

The 16-mile Delhi-Gurgaon expressway is the busiest in India, with more than 200,000 vehicles using it every day. It also connects New Delhi to the financial hub of Mumbai, which has the country’s busiest ports. Built for $200 million in 2008, it was meant to be an eight-lane dream run, replacing an old one-lane highway known for its nightmarish traffic snarls.

The expressway was an example of a model in which a private investor builds a large highway project, runs it for a while, then turns it over to the government — a good idea, many here said, for a government without the money to satisfy ever-expanding infrastructure needs.

But the expressway has turned into a symbol of India’s failure to cope with the burgeoning traffic, and of the runaway aspirations and impatience of the middle class.

In many ways, Gurgaon, one of India’s fastest growing suburbs, mirrors the country’s growth over the past decade and a half. Until the 1990s, Gurgaon was a sleepy farming suburb with a couple of factories and a few homes. But it now has 1.5 million people, a 73 percent increase since 2001.

Gurgaon has followed the classic Indian model of city development “wherein the infrastructure problems are being sorted out after population has started to move in,” the global financial services firm J.P. Morgan wrote in a report.

A spokesman for Delhi Gurgaon Super Connectivity, the private company that built and operates the expressway, said in an e-mail that the highway is “comparable to any global expressway project in terms of tolling technology, construction quality, commuter safety and convenience” but that there were problems caused by a “lack of commuter education in terms of the concept of paying tolls and driving discipline.”

Obtaining the land to build more lanes and tollbooths to cope with the traffic pressure is also a big challenge, he said.

The spokesman, who did not want to be named because of company policy, said the average toll-processing speed during peak hours is very high, at about 500 to 600 vehicles per lane, per hour.

Clearly, that is not enough.

Frustrated commuters have frequently e-mailed government officials and routinely post pictures, laments and videos on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

In recent months, the expressway has become part of a tug of war between the government, the operator, commuters and local residents. In August, a court ordered the operator to open more tollbooths and deploy more traffic managers. When the traffic jams persisted, the court suspended toll collection during rush hour for a few weeks in September.

Now, the expressway has employed a dozen new toll collectors during rush hour who stand under makeshift, plastic canopies stopping the cars manually.

On a recent morning, several cars drove past the canopies without paying. When toll collector Manjresh Kumar tried to stop one car, the angry driver rolled down his window and threw loose change at him before driving off. Another snapped his finger at Kumar’s face after paying and added menacingly, “Say, ‘Thank you.’ ”

“One has to swallow the insults,” Kumar shrugged.

Last year, a commuter shot dead a tollbooth attendant who had demanded to see his ID.

The mounting frustrations over delays and jams have fueled a demand for an end to the toll. Angry local residents have picketed the gates and forcibly lifted the boom-barrier four times in the past year to stop toll collection.

“We are already paying taxes to the city, on petrol and on infrastructure, why do we pay an extra toll for the highway?” said Attar Singh Sandhu, the coordinator of the Remove Toll Campaign Committee, who sports a “No Toll” car sticker. “Why can't we use the highway free and make travel easier and quicker?”

The answer to that question gets lost in the din and smoke of the toll plaza every day.

© The Washington Post Company