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How Indian Highways Rock!

Omkar Goswami


Those who speak of the state of the Indian economy to foreigners that increasingly throng our shores excited by India’s 9 per cent GDP growth rainbow invariably speak of the success of the National Highway Development Programme (NHDP).


This is what they say: “Although starting from a low base, the NHDP has been a success. Thanks to the cess on every litre of petrol and diesel purchased in India, the NHDP has no shortage of funds for building and maintaining modern dual carriage highways. Despite occasional hiccups, it has done well. For instance, 98 per cent of the 5,846 km long Golden Quadrilateral (linking Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata) is already four- or six-laned. Work is progressing along the 7,274 km North-South, East-West Corridor which, when completed, will link Srinagar to Kanyakumari and Silchar to Porbandar. Projects have been awarded for four-laning of 10,000 km of national highways connecting state capitals. To be sure, we started at low levels; the progress could have been faster; but we are getting there. Soon India will be linked by well-surfaced four- to six-lane national highways.”


Now for a reality check. This is a route that my wife Radhika and I do thrice a year, and so have a good idea of the actual progress of national highways. We drive from Delhi to a hamlet called Sitla in Kumaon, very close to the small town of Muketshwar in Naini Tal district. The 353 km route goes thus: Delhi-Hapur bypass-Simbhaoli-Garh Mukteshwar-Gajraula-Moradabad bypass-Rampur (along NH 24 to Lucknow), then Bilaspur-Rudrapur-Haldwani-Kathgodam (by NH 87 to Nainital), and finally, Bhimtal-Bhowali-Ramgarh-Sitla. Except the last 60 kilometres when the road forks for Bhimtal, the route is along India’s national highways. And let me tell you, it is the last 60 km that gives any driving pleasure. Most of the rest is hell.


Each time, Radhika and I swear to leave Delhi before 5.30 a.m. but never succeed before 7.30. Unless you are a maniac on wheels, it takes over an hour and a half to negotiate the trans-Yamuna traffic and get on to the other side of Hapur. Then on, you are driving on an atrociously surfaced, perennially potholed two-and-a-half lane single-carriage abomination that goes by the name of NH 24. Every now and then you will get into diversions because of a dual carriage that is being built in incomplete stretches over the last three years; and you will come across many half finished constructions that are supposed to be the top section of flyovers, with nothing other than earthwork on each side — where, on holidays, little boys love muddily gambolling down the slopes. If there isn’t heavy traffic from the other end, you are lucky to average 50 km per hour. Most times you are doing 35, gear shifting and braking like a mad Mahdi to negotiate huge corrugations and crazy potholes.


In parts, often several kilometres at a stretch, there is no asphalt surfacing left. After a few days of rain this March, sections of the road near Gajraula, beyond Rampur, at Bilaspur and around Rudrapur were like the muddy quagmires that the retreating German Army faced in Russia in 1943. On most of the two-lane single carriage section between Rampur and Rudrapur, traffic coming from both ends try to drive on the side that has been recently graced by a lick of asphalt, lest axles break on the deeply rutted other. Often the muddy sides steeply fall off the sparsely asphalted surface, making it hell for a car that a truck or bus bullies off the highway.


This time, after eight hours of sheer pain, Radhika said: “Thirty years ago, my dad drove 600 km from Delhi to Dalhousie in his Ambassador in 12 hours. Today, with a fancy five-gear Honda Civic, you can’t do 350 km to Sitla in less than 10 hours. What kind of progress is that?”


I replied, “That’s 9 per cent growth, my love. To grow faster, you must go slower, and bumpity-bump along.” Long live NHDP, which completes 0.26 km of highways per day.      


Published: Business World, March 2007


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