Letter from India

New highway stirs changes and aspirations in Indian villages

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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 28, 2010

KARORI VILLAGE, INDIA -- The old, potholed road was a source of endless traffic jams and accidents. It did not have a median or lights. Trucks, tractors and camels frequently collided at night.

Like most interstates in India, the road that ran through this village was characterized by chaos and cacophony. On both sides, vendors and laborers congregated at fix-it shops, while educated villagers read newspapers to the less fortunate, sipping hot tea and pontificating on politics. The atmosphere resembled a town square.

Last year, though, the road was replaced. In came a four-lane, 130-mile expressway that ran between the cities of Jaipur and Agra and cut the drive time between the two in half. With its lights, median and bright-green signs, the expressway has changed the pace of life for those who gather along it and stirred aspirations in the sleepy villages and small towns nearby.

In many ways, the new road is a shining emblem of India's efforts to create economic momentum by upgrading its infrastructure. In an Eisenhower-like mission, the road transport and highway minister, Kamal Nath, recently announced that he wants to add 12 miles of highway across India every day beginning in April. The biggest hole in the country's economic growth, he said, is a lack of good highways that can bring farms and factories closer.

In Karori village, mustard farmer Ghanshyam Meena, 27, has started looking beyond his fields that hug the road. In the past six months, he said, he has set up a cotton-threshing unit and a truck wash. Now, he plans to install a jute-crushing machine next to his blooming yellow fields.

"Traffic has already doubled now, and I keep thinking of new possibilities," Meena said one afternoon as his cotton machine whirred against the roar of trucks on the highway.

His neighbor Ravinder Gurjar, 18, had wanted to become a teacher in the village government school, a safe career option for many rural youth. But he is rethinking his plans.

"The highway may bring new factories to this area. Maybe I should study electrical works so that I can work in the big factories," he said. "I want to be ready for change."

Thanks to better access because of the road, a new engineering college opened last August in the town of Dausa. Waiting for a bus outside the school to take him home, 20-year-old Sudha Agarwal said it has "become easy for girls like me to get an engineering degree now, because the new college is just one hour away from my village." Her parents had agreed readily, she said.

Farmers from 150 villages will soon be able to take their vegetables directly to a new tomato trading center, cutting out expensive middlemen.

The new road, though, has not been welcomed by everyone. The speeding traffic has driven out the hawkers who dotted both sides selling nuts, fruit, freshly cut coconut, cucumbers and radishes.

"Earlier, we had a small road, and there were constant jams. But that helped hawkers. People got bored waiting in their vehicles and bought things to munch," said Bhure Lal, 29, a groundnut trader who lay in the winter sun atop jute sacks of nuts near the expressway. "The highway may be good for speed, but it has destroyed many small livelihoods."

As the sun pierced through the dense winter morning fog, vehicles cruised past at 75 mph.

But the old "anything-goes" lifestyle stubbornly refuses to adjust to all the new rules of the road.

On a recent day, a tractor appeared heading the wrong direction, and the speeding traffic screeched and swirled around to make way. Villagers made death-defying sprints back and forth across the highway, chasing their goats and children.

"The traffic moves too fast now. People used to fracture their limbs in the accidents earlier, but now . . . an accident means death," said Ramkishan Sharma, 56-year-old tea shop owner. "We want the freedom to cross by foot to reach the other side whenever needed."

Villagers have broken the median at many spots so they can cut across on motorcycles. Motorists take short detours on village routes to avoid the toll plaza.

In a concession to the old ways, the highway has cattle-crossing underpasses and lanes for slow-moving camel carts.

Managing the new Indian highway has perhaps been as challenging as building it.

Brahm Dutt Kaushik, a manager of the Malaysian company that built and manages the highway, maintains a fat file of police complaints against villagers accused of stealing the new aluminum highway signboards, solar-paneled emergency phone boxes and strips of pedestrian railing.

"They sell these as scrap in the local market," he said. "It has become a nuisance."

But businessmen in the handicrafts town of Sikandra, known for stone-carving, say the new road will have a positive effect on development, tourism and commerce.

"Big people will come on this highway and see our handicrafts now," said Hiralal Saini, 35, who sells sandstone-carved gazebos, lamps and garden accessories, which he exports to the United States and Belgium. "When a big road comes up, bigger things follow."


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