India's roads to prosperity?
Symbolic of where India is going is the way we've been building roads to prosperity which are also our roads to perdition
Every day that I am in Bangalore, at around 5.45am, I cross the NH7. The traffic routinely zips past as I try to cross the road. This highway starts in Varanasi, ends in Kanyakumari, stretching and alive, almost like a modern Ganga. I cross it every morning because I live on one side of it, and the other side is the 1,600-acre University of Agricultural Sciences campus, where I go to run.
The NH7 is just one part of the grand plan of development of national highways. Across the country there are many such stretches; roads as good as anywhere in the world. These are India's roads to prosperity.
The execution of the national highway development plan is behind schedule, it is patchy and has many other problems, but there is no doubt that it has delivered thousands of kilometers of roads to India, which we could have just dreamt about, 10 years ago.
This has not been the only development on roads. Many rural roads in the country have improved dramatically.
So the cliché of India being a land of extremes has got one more dimension in the past few years. These swathes of excellent roads coexist in our country with much larger stretches of things that pretend to be roads.
One can think of very few physical assets whose economic multiplier is greater than roads. Roads change lives and economies wherever they go. No wonder, elections have been fought and won on the plank of bijli, sadak, paani (electricity, roads and water).
But not every road in the world is an unalloyed "good". Looking deeper into the character of roads can present a more complicated picture.
Follow the controversy on the road through Serengeti national park in Tanzania, and you will see one of these conflicts. Serengeti comes from a Masai word meaning "the place where the land moves on forever", resonating with its famous migration of wildebeests and zebras. The highway will cut through the lives of the park's migratory wildlife. This could lead to the collapse of the largest remaining migratory system on earth.
But for the government of Tanzania and a large number of its people, this road is a road to prosperity. Its economic potential is so compelling, that it must be built, despite its ecological risk.
The scientists, conservationists and a large number of supporters of the cause are not against a road being built, but they want it realigned to the south, which will let survive, one of the great wonders of nature on earth.
It's not that in India the roads that we are building are bereft of these complex conflicts. But besides the issues of "land acquisition" (which is certainly often serious in itself) nothing much ever comes up in the public gaze.
With every road that we build, there is an impact on the local environment and ecology. I am not familiar with any serious assessment of these impacts. Such impact assessment may or may not be warranted, depending on where the proposed road is passing through.
Another thing that we have not done in a systematic manner is a coordinated and planned approach with our train and road systems, for the long term.
The models from different developed nations and regions suggest that the ecological footprints of transport systems primarily dependent on roads are very different from those that are dependent on trains.
The indifference that we are demonstrating to our environment, as we build roads is one aspect. But the callous disregard that we show to people is another.
Even the early morning crossing of NH7 on foot is not easy for me. It's an excellent road, and the traffic zips past. But there is nothing to help a pedestrian cross the road, one has to fend for oneself, waiting for minutes for a lull in the traffic, and then rushing across.
Every day I also see how much more difficult it is to cross that road for everyone. The same story is repeated for the millions who cross our glorious new roads to prosperity - anywhere in the country (including roads within cities). There are no overhead bridges or underpasses - nothing that has been designed and built for pedestrians to cross the highways - across stretches of thousands of kilometers.
These thousands of kilometers of highways have by their very presence divided thousands of towns and villages through the middle, into two different "territories" - to be crossed from one to the other - courting danger - while merely going about daily lives….children going to school, mothers fetching water and a vendor carrying something on his head.
Is this a trivial issue? I think not.
I think it is deeply reflective of our ways of thinking where considerations of equity and care are given short shrift.
Because the truth is that people like us, who determine how and where the roads will be made, rarely cross such roads. They usually drive on them. Those who routinely cross the roads, especially in the thousands of small villages and towns, have no voice in the making of these roads.
Symbolic of where India is going, and how it is getting there, is the way we have gone about building roads to prosperity, which are also our roads to perdition.?