Bad Roads: an Indian Tradition?

India is notorious for its roads. Bad roads are endemic to India. Roads are poorly designed, poorly surfaced and of course, are quite narrow in proportion to the traffic flow. India is chaotic, has always been chaotic. And on its roads, it is at its anarchic best.

The British tried to change that under their rule, but we’ve tried hard to return to the Tradition since then. The new highway projects (at the personal initiative of Vajpayee, and pursued by Manmohan Singh) are labouring to create good roads across the country. But would it succeed in breaking from the past tradition?

A couple of months back, I traveled on one of the finest stretch of the National Highway that runs from Mumbai to Delhi. This was my 7th drive on the stretch (450 km), which was completed 3 years back. (However, the entire 1200 km road isn’t ready in 5 years!) To my astonishment this time, a smooth 70 km track was already ripped off. At other places, shanties had come up wherever the highway passed a little town, spilling cattle, bicycles & bizarre local versions of transport on the so called “speedway”. And of course, the occasional sprint across the road by a veiled/ghoonghat woman & her man shook you behind the wheel.

On less fortunate versions of the highway that I described above, things can be worse. On little bridges that take you across the monsoon drains (nullahs or river – depending upon one’s perception), vehicles from opposite directions frequently lock horns on who goes first. And our traffic policemen (mostly hapless) do absolutely nothing to bring any order of any kind. If a 75-tonne truck blocks your way by sticking to the fastest lane, you overtake him from the wrong side, decelerate your vehicle in front of his, forcing him to stop. Next you give him a little lecture on traffic rule and if he is arrogant, get back to your car and take a verbal shot on his women, before speeding away. These are standard procedures for Indian roads.

Tavernier’s description of Indian freight transport and roads are useful. He traveled to India in 1665 (AD) and found that transport is the prerogative of certain tribes, because it involves enormous skills. Skill was required to manage large caravans, bad roads, robbers, extorting local governments and of course the necessary supplies for the animals. These tribes traveled all their lives, with wives and children. A caravan consisted of 10 thousand to 12 thousand oxen and a couple of hundred men (many armed)! And when a large caravan met face on another, there was trouble. The narrow road meant only one could pass at a time. For 12 thousand oxen to pass, it could take 3 days. Often, the two caravan forces sought to solve it by sword. Roads meant blood.

Are we going to change? Ever?

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