Sunday, December 04, 2005


Amy Waldman is doing a series of articles in the New York Times on India's rapidly growing superhighway system, the "golden quadrilaterial." The first one alone packs quite a punch; Waldman is a practiced observer of India, and is able to give a balanced and realistic picture.

There are some great touches here, including the (predictable) Indian bureaucrat bemoaning the hurdles to progress posed by "Democracy," the Korean engineer who's taught his Indian cook to make Kimchee, as well as the women hired by the highway project, who carry wet cement on their heads from the mixer to the road. All in all Waldman makes a compelling case that the project is "going to change the face of India," while also acknowledging that it produces as many problems as it solves. (Though in the end, there can be no question that the highway is needed)

In terms of the writing, my favorite bit comes near the end:

The face of West Bengal, home to 28 years of Communist rule and acres of green rice paddies, was already changing. Three satellite townships were being built near the town of Bardwan, which would be only an hour from Calcutta when the new highway was complete. Residents would commute, as they did from suburbs across America.

If the highway was enabling the middle class to migrate out of cities, it was also encouraging the poor to migrate in. Beneath a crosshatch of elevated highways on the edge of Calcutta, thousands of rural Indians had burrowed in, constructing homes, creating businesses. Dung patties dried on the highway's underpinnings. Yellow taxis sat in rows. A whole civilization within, or beneath, a civilization, had hatched.

Dal bubbled over a wood fire in the single room, constructed from wood and jute bags, that eight men shared. Bal Dev Rai, a 40-year-old from the state of Jharkhand, had called the room home for five years. He drove a bicycle handcart, sending money to his wife and daughters, returning to his village at harvest time. For him and his fellow bottom-dwellers, the improved highway meant a nicer roof over their heads.

Read the whole article (and look at the multimedia feature), here.

Update: Part 2 of the series -- on the booming Indian auto industry -- is here. Interesting tidbit: 800,000 personal automobiles were sold in India in 2004, with the number for 2005 expected to cross 1 million. At that rate of growth, and given that Waldman states that there are 23 million autos on the roads currently in India, the number of cars jamming Indian highways and city streets will double in the next 10 years!

Update 2: Part 3 of the series here; Part 4 of the series here.


manish said...

and I hope the Korean engineer took some mango pickles back with him :)

arZan said...


Thanks for the very good pointer. A very well written article.

Reading this also meakes me nsotalgic. Some of the best memories of India include the very diverse roads, each with their own character and charm.

If they all beocme like I-95 here, it surely will be a very boring monotonous ride. You know what i mean.

Amardeep said...

Arzan, Yes, that's going to be a real issue. From the point of view of tourism and the pleasure of travel it is definitely a mixed blessing. You get where you're going much faster: it's possible to contemplate traveling around the whole country by road in the next 5-10 years.

But you lose the distinctive touch of the old school dhabhas, odd little villages, etc. It will accelerate sprawl, while also making those old way-stations totally economically irrelevant. (Everyone will be going to franchise rest stops)

On the whole, if it helps the country as much as people are saying it will, I'll accept the McDonalds-ization of the highways.

Anand said...

The article has its share of hyperbole!

For Hindus, trees are sacred; one highway official said Muslims were sometimes hired to cut them down at night.

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

I also remain unimpressed by the article's focus on how good roads will change the face of India. Both Kolkata and Mumbai have huge commuter traffic already. Their populations swell to nearly during the day, each workday. If you stand in the gateway railway stations of Kolkata (and presumably also in Mumbai), like Sealdah, Howrah etc. and watch people come in on the EMU (electric multiple units), you can see the crowds coming in. Look at this (PDF) link. This american focus on roads is misplaced. Especially as these people coming in on trains aren't poor, but middle class. These are the clerks, middle management, teachers, etc. that were the main contingent of the migration to suburbia here. The poor and affluent are the ones who can afford to live in town. And those lucky enough to have won a government lottery for a house. The face of India has already changed. It had changed in the 70's under the huge economic pressures the populations were put to then. Have you been to Burdwan, Asansol or any of these Mufassil towns? They are huge metropolis by american standards. These roads are a good old fashioned employment schemes. So they are good, for that. But I'd hesitate to go much further.

Amardeep said...

Wow, that's a very informative PDF article! I've only read about half of it, and I know more about the issues facing Indian commuter rail than I ever thought possible.

I see what you're saying about the questionable benefit of the highways to the Indian masses. One place where I think it will benefit everyone is in the increased efficiency of truck transport. Greater efficiency means lower prices, and not just for high-ticket items.

Another issue to consider, which supports your skepticism, is the statistic that shows the number of cars on Indian roads doubling in the next ten years. So traffic that is already terrible in most Indian metros will soon get exponentially worse...

abhishek said...

thanks for sharing. its a great article.

Anonymous said...

Nostalgic charm ? You mean broken down roads with huge potholes that are sometimes unpaved ? [ Good luck negotiating those in rain] ? No restrooms or really dirty restrooms ? Water that can send you to a non-existent restroom (unless you carry your own) ? Roads blocked by cows or sheep crossing the road ? Food -- OK, there you got me -- dhaba food is sometimes exceedingly delicious although you would be careful to avoid non-veg food.

Besides, maybe we can do what Americans do and have our own Route 66. or have business routes that go into the village. I think those villages will do just fine too. Land around the corners of the highways is going to be worth megabucks.

And the biggest advantage might be if Indians learn to drive properly and the accident rate goes down.

Abi said...

Not withstanding the hyperbole that Anand pointed out to, I still think the series overall was quite balanced.

The Golden Quadrilateral is not for Mumbai or Calcutta. It is meant for making it easy for others [people and things] to get to Mumbai, Calcutta, and a whole bunch of places [Waldman talks about Surat in today's NYTimes] that dot the highway. Result: urbanization of India will accelerate.

When it is done [and if -- this is a big if -- it is done properly], there is no doubt that it is going to unleash a mini-revolution. For one, people are going to demand good roads everywhere, and that can only be a good thing [ermm, that can be a good thing only!].

I too think that Waldman has produced a gem.

tilotamma said...

manish - I was thinking hte same thing.
Why kim chee when there are so many other achars to chose from?