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Eyes on the road and hands upon the wheel

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Eyes on the road and hands upon the wheel

You cannot have a decent quality life anywhere in the country without quality roads: Whether you go to school or cycle to work, whether your trip is on the tractor to the local mandi or a long drive in a sleek car...

For a lot of fellow citizens, the vast expanse of black bitumen on roads, unbroken and serpentine stretches, with wide expanses of the countryside and the hills unfolding, sends the adrenaline pumping. Ask those who travel on many bitumen wonders or highways of the country and they will swear by the excitement driving on them has to offer.

Driving is not only a stress buster but also a learning experience. Nature, people, aspirations, food, culture, society, the economy… you name it. Being based in Chandigarh is of great help when planning a long drive due to its geographical advantage — it lies in the foothills of the Shivalik range and the great Indian plain ends here. The joint capital of Punjab and Haryana is perched on the edge of the vast expanse of the Indo-Gangetic belt, the mainstay of Indian agriculture since the Indus Valley Civilization. So, one has the best of both geographical worlds, the hills and the plains, in front of one, a diversity which is rare in any part of the world.

I may be a travel junkie and love driving for the fun of it plus I can select very good highways in the vicinity to hit the road, but for a majority of the people in the country the use of roads is an everyday necessity. You cannot have a decent quality life anywhere in the country without quality roads. Whether you go to school or cycle to work, whether you go to the local mandi on your tractor to offload your produce in a bullock cart or whether you are on a road trip in a sleek car. In many ways, the first contact of a citizen with the effectiveness or lack thereof of a Government is the road s/he uses to get from Point A to Point B.

The National Highway I, for example, which connects Delhi to the two prosperous States of Punjab and Haryana, takes you to Himachal Pradesh on the one hand and Jammu & Kashmir on the other. There would hardly be any decision-maker in the Capital or in the four northern States who must not be using this road for travel purposes. The stretch between Panipat and Jalandhar should have been converted into six-lane in 2011 but it was left to the Supreme Court to issue directions to the concessionaire which ensured the completion of the project only recently.

This project should now be used as a case study in school management how not to build new road projects. It should also be used as a case study to give contracts for other road projects so that they do not get into legal wrangles and cost over runs. Drive ahead to Jalandhar in Punjab and one would find a major flyover stuck in legal mess for years together on the national highway. Every motorist, who use the highway, curse the authorities as it spoils the pleasure of their journey.

Further, there’s yet another expressway which should have been built years ago — the much awaited Kundli-Manesar-Palwal (KMP) expressway — which is expected to reduce vehicular congestion and as a result, pollution in the Capital but has perpetually been under construction with one legal issue or the other cropping up every time. This can be yet another case study of a project in the management of schools with the chapter saying: How not to build a road; KMP case study!

What perplexes me the most is that most national highways have perpetually been under construction since years. Most of them are being six-laned. Two decades back, the National Highways Authority of India  was under the process of converting the highways into four-lanes. I wonder whether construction and widening would be a permanent feature of the roads. Half a decade from now, the need will be of eight-lane roads and maybe 15-20 years down, the volume of traffic may force the authorities to have 20-lane roads.

One fails to understand what prevents the authorities from constructing 12-lane roads straight away in important stretches, keeping in view the traffic scenario of 2040? It does not require rocket science to know that the number of vehicles on roads keep increasing everyday and vehicles need space to move. I am sure after the six-laning of NH-8, which goes to Jaipur and Mumbai, the need will again be to make eight-laned roads in the next five years and then 10-laned roads in another 15 years from now. Why not build it today itself? If it’s not planned today, construction activities will continue all the time and one will hardly find a 200-250 km of expressway free from construction or broadening activities.

The Ambala-Zirakpur (Chandigarh) stretch was four-laned only six years ago and already the need is being felt to widen it to six-lane with multi-storied housing complexes coming in vicinity of Chandigarh and accompanying vehicles clogging the road. What worsens the situation is the fact that whenever a new stretch of road comes up, there is heightened economic activity around it. Housing colonies are built, shops, eateries and small scale establishments come up and even rural population shifts towards the road to take benefit of the new economic activity.

In the last few years, there has been hectic construction activity on NH from Delhi to Amritsar, Delhi to Jaipur and Delhi to Lucknow via Moradabad and Bareilly. Shifting of economic activity in and around the roads will lead to a situation where only a few stretches alongside the highway will be left for paddy or mustard fields as the remaining space will be gobbled up by commercial activities.

Coming back to the joy of travelling on the road, nothing can beat the hilarious shop sign — ‘child bear’ sold here. It’s only when you take the kids to see the baby bear and are confronted by a liquor shop selling ‘chilled beer’ that the truth dawns.

Trucks, however, rule the roost when it comes to innovative slogans. Most slogans appeared like works of fledgling litterateurs, who could not get their work published and, had rather taken to writing slogans on trucks as a career! Himmat hai to aage nikal, warna bardasht kar (If you are brave enough, overtake me, otherwise tolerate me), warned one frightening slogan. I was brave enough and overtook the truck without any fuss. The driver merely brought out an extended palm from the window of his huge vehicle and facilitated the overtake without taking the slogan written on his truck seriously.

Imagination ran wild in the case of some slogans. Recently, on a trip to Shimla, I thought the owner of one of the trucks or its driver was using abusive language when the slogan at the back said, Teri Ma ki. However, in equally bold letters followed Jai Ho. So, the entire slogan read: Teri Ma ki jai ho. I never came across such a slogan anywhere!

Another slogan said, Amiro ki zindagi biscuit aur cake par, driver ki zindagi clutch aur brake par. There were hundreds more. Tata phir milenge and buri nazar wale tera muh kala seemed to be written on maximum number of trucks and read like a national slogan of the big Indian beast that were the trucks with number plates identifying vehicles from far and wide including Orissa, West Bengal, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab to Gujarat, Maharashtra and Kerala.

One fuel station on NH 1 was giving a bathing soap free for every 100 litres of diesel and the limit was 400 litres. Half a dozen of trucks and their drivers were lazing around early morning in the vicinity of the fuel station, giving an indication that marketing strategy indeed worked.

At another, if a driver had to use a clean toilet, he had to fill in fuel first. Fill the tank, get a slip and then show it to the guard in front of the toilet to ease yourself. Another private fuel station had kept a log book of the diesel filled in by a particular vehicle in a month. The prizes were good-set of steel glasses for 1,000 litres, briefcase for 2,000 litres, branded shirt so on and so forth.  Business on roads has become quite innovative over the months and years. Knowing about it is the perk of road travel.

(The writer is Senior Editor, The Pioneer, Chandigarh)




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