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FW: Mile by Mile, India Paves a Smoother Road to Its Future

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  • Andrew Dawson
    India paving to oblivion? Take care, Andrew
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2005
      India paving to oblivion? Take care, Andrew

      >>http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/04/international/asia/04highway.html
      >>
      >>December 4, 2005
      >>India Accelerating
      >>Mile by Mile, India Paves a Smoother Road to Its Future
      >>By AMY WALDMAN
      >>
      >>NEW DELHI, India - In the middle of the old Grand Trunk Road a
      >>temple sits under a peepul tree. The surrounding highway is
      >>being widened to four lanes, and vehicles barrel along either
      >>side. But the temple and tree thwart even greater speed, and a
      >>passing contractor says they soon will be removed.
      >>
      >>Kali, Hindu goddess of destruction, thinks otherwise. She is angry,
      >>say the colorfully garbed women massing in the holy tree's
      >>dappled shade. As evidence, they point to one woman's newly
      >>pockmarked face and other mysterious ailments recently visited on
      >>their nearby village, Jagdishrai. They have tried to convince Kali
      >>that the tree and temple devoted to her must go, but they have
      >>failed. Now they have no choice but to oppose the removal, too,
      >>even if they must block the road to do it.
      >>
      >>Goddess versus man, superstition versus progress, the people
      >>versus the state - mile by mile, India is struggling to modernize
      >>its national highway system, and in the process, itself.
      >>
      >>The Indian government has begun a 15-year project to widen and pave
      >>some 40,000 miles of narrow, decrepit national highways, with the
      >>first leg, budgeted at $6.25 billion, to be largely complete by
      >>next year. It amounts to the most ambitious infrastructure project
      >>since independence in 1947 and the British building of
      >>the subcontinent's railway network the century before.
      >>
      >>The effort echoes the United States' construction of its
      >>national highway system in the 1920's and 1950's. The arteries
      >>paved across America fueled commerce and development, fed a
      >>nation's auto obsession and created suburbs. They also
      >>displaced communities and helped sap mass transit and deplete
      >>inner cities.
      >>
      >>For India, already one of the world's fastest-growing economies and
      >>most rapidly evolving societies, the results may be as radical. At
      >>its heart, the redone highway is about grafting Western notions of
      >>speed and efficiency onto a civilization that has always taken the
      >>long view.
      >>
      >>Aryan migration, Mogul conquest, British colonialism - all
      >>shaped India's civilization over centuries. Now, in a span of less
      >>than 15 years, capitalism and globalization have convulsed India at
      >>an unprecedented rate of change.
      >>
      >>The real start came in 1991, when India began dismantling its
      >>state-run economy and opening its markets to foreign imports
      >>and investment. While that reform process has been fitful, leaving
      >>the country trailing its neighbor and rival, China, India has turned
      >>a corner. Its economy grew 6.9 percent in the fiscal year ending
      >>in March. India has a new identity, thanks to outsourcing, as
      >>back office to the world.
      >>
      >>The new highway is certain to jump-start India's competitiveness,
      >>given that its dismal infrastructure helped keep it behind the
      >>economic success stories of the Asian Tigers.
      >>
      >>"The perception of India earlier was that it cannot be in the rank
      >>of other fast-growing nations," said Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was
      >>an aide to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former prime minister
      >>who championed the project. With the highway, Mr. Kulkarni
      >>said, "People began to see that India is transforming."
      >>
      >>To grasp that transformation, and India's transition, a New York
      >>Times reporter and photographer spent a month this year driving
      >>the first stage of the highway project, which has been dubbed,
      >>in awkward but bullish coinage, the Golden Quadrilateral.
      >>
      >>More jagged than geometric, the four- and six-lane
      >>quadrilateral's 3,625 miles run through 13 states and India's
      >>four largest cities: New Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, formerly Madras,
      >>and Mumbai, formerly Bombay. The journey along the highway offered
      >>a before-and-after snapshot of India, of the challenges of
      >>developing the world's largest democracy, and of how westernization
      >>is reshaping Indian society.
      >>
      >>To drive east from New Delhi to Calcutta is to travel through
      >>flat fields, almost primeval forests, lush rice paddies - and some
      >>of India's poorest, roughest states, where contractors have
      >>battled violence and corruption to get the road built.
      >>
      >>To move south from Calcutta, alongside the Bay of Bengal,
      >>through palm-covered hills, then up the west into Rajasthan's
      >>desert, is to see the highway as a conduit for the forces molding
      >>the new India. Ever-flashier cars, evidence of a frenzied
      >>new consumerism, leave bullock carts in the dust. Truckers slow
      >>at night for roadside sex workers, each of them potential carriers
      >>of H.I.V. Farmers' sons make a beeline for swelling cities that
      >>are challenging the village as the center of Indian life.
      >>
      >>The highway itself brings change. For a nation inured to
      >>inefficiency, the improved interstate saves time - for Kailash
      >>Pandey, a milk-seller, one-third off a 90-minute commute to market;
      >>for Imtiaz Ali, 15, half off the bike ride to school; and half off
      >>the travel time for Sarjeet Singh, a trucker.
      >>
      >>These micro gains make for macro benefit: some $1.5 billion a year
      >>in savings, by one World Bank estimate, on everything from fuel
      >>costs to faster freight delivery. More intangibly, the highway
      >>may turn India into a society in a hurry, enslaving it to the
      >>Western notion that time equals money.
      >>
      >>Nationalists also hope the highway will further unite a country
      >>that is home to 22 official languages, the world's major religions,
      >>a host of separatist movements, and 35 union territories and
      >>states, many more populous than European nations.
      >>
      >>But coherence may bring collision. Since 1991, India's population
      >>of poor has dropped to 26 percent from 36 percent, yet the poor
      >>seem poorer than ever. India now juxtaposes pre- and
      >>postindustrial societies: citizens who live on dirt floors
      >>without electricity and others who live like 21st-century
      >>Americans, only with more servants. The highway throws these two
      >>Indias into jarring proximity.
      >>
      >>Outside Jaipur, young men virtually bonded into labor hack
      >>with primitive tools at old tires. They work in an archaic assembly
      >>line beside the highway, chopping the tires into pieces and loading
      >>them onto trucks so they can be burned as toxic fuel at a brick
      >>kiln. The tent camp they call home splays out in dirty disarray
      >>behind them. A brutish overseer verbally whips them to work
      >>faster.
      >>
      >>"Please take me out of here," Rafiq Ahmed, 21, whispered as he
      >>bent in the darkness to lift another load. "My back hurts."
      >>
      >>On the revamped road next to him, the darkness has been banished
      >>by electric lights overhead. Auto-borne commuters race along six
      >>silky lanes toward the Golden Heritage Apartments, the Vishal
      >>Mini-Mart, the Bajaj Showroom featuring the New Pulsar 2005 with
      >>Alloy Wheels, all the while burning rubber that will eventually
      >>fall to the young men, hidden by night, obscured by speed,
      >>forgotten by progress, to dispose.
      >>
      >>Empires and Engines
      >>
      >>On the highway from New Delhi to Agra, where the Taj Mahal floats
      >>over a grimy city, homelier but no less enduring relics line the
      >>route. Kos minars - massive pillars that once served as
      >>markers - invoke India's last great road-building effort.
      >>
      >>It was five centuries ago.
      >>
      >>The Moguls, whose empire stretched into central Asia, understood
      >>the importance of transport links for solidifying empire. Most
      >>famously, Sher Shah Suri, who ruled in the 16th century,
      >>commissioned the Grand Trunk Road along ancient trade routes.
      >>
      >>The British who began colonizing India a century later also
      >>understood that imperial rule required physical connection, not
      >>least for moving the raw materials, like cotton, that made
      >>empire profitable. But they cemented their rule in the age of
      >>the steam engine, laying railways rather than roads across
      >>the subcontinent.
      >>
      >>For decades afterward, India's roads remained better suited to
      >>bullock carts than motor cars. In the 50 years after independence,
      >>the government built just 334 miles of four-lane roads.
      >>
      >>The romance of India's railroad, meanwhile, could not obscure
      >>the reality of a badly aging system, with state funds
      >>bolstering patronage more than service or safety.
      >>
      >>Over time, more and more traffic shifted to the roads, despite
      >>their choked, potholed state. Driving in India has meant more stops
      >>than starts, necessitating braking for sacred cows, camel
      >>carts, conversational knots, tractors and women balancing bundles
      >>of wood on their heads.
      >>
      >>The new highway, then, is nothing short of radical, which becomes
      >>clear after Agra, where large stretches are already complete.
      >>An American-style interstate unfurls through villages where
      >>mud-brick buildings rarely rise above two stories and women still
      >>cook with buffalo dung. The highway is smooth, wide, flat
      >>and incongruous: an ambitious road amid still-humble
      >>architecture, a thoroughfare from this century amid scenery from
      >>a previous one.
      >>
      >>To drive it is to gain momentum, to not want to stop, and not have
      >>to. Drivers no longer pass through towns, but by them, or where
      >>the highway soars into the air, over them. The rural landscape,
      >>formerly painted in pointillist detail, becomes a blur, an
      >>abstraction - a vanishing trick that may portend things to
      >>come.
      >>
      >>Bridging Distances
      >>
      >>The highway's nerve center sits on the outskirts of the
      >>Delhi metropolis, a sleek, six-story building with automatic
      >>doors and functioning elevators that radiates immaculacy and
      >>efficiency. Most Indian government buildings sit in the
      >>British-built heart of the city. They wear a decrepit air,
      >>reflecting a fusty bureaucracy hidebound by red tape.
      >>
      >>The distance, in geography and mien, between the highway
      >>headquarters and the rest of India's government is no
      >>accident.
      >>
      >>The highway was conceived in 1998, soon after a Hindu
      >>nationalist-led government took power. The prime minister at the
      >>time, Mr. Vajpayee, quickly ordered a series of nuclear tests, and
      >>later that year announced the highway project.
      >>
      >>Former aides say that both moves were essential to
      >>Mr. Vajpayee's nationalist vision of a secure, competitive India.
      >>To circumvent India's entrenched bureaucracy, Mr. Vajpayee empowered
      >>an autonomous authority to oversee the highways, streamline
      >>the contracting process and privilege the private sector.
      >>
      >>He allowed foreign companies in to do much of the work, ending
      >>four decades of postcolonial self-sufficiency, and imposed taxes
      >>and tolls, challenging a political culture engorged with
      >>government subsidies.
      >>
      >>The man responsible for executing these shifts was
      >>Maj. Gen. B. C. Khanduri, who had been India's minister of roads.
      >>A year after he left the post, he still kept a map of the
      >>Golden Quadrilateral on his wall.
      >>
      >>Political pressures, rushed planning and mixed performance
      >>by contractors have led to uneven results along the route. But
      >>Mr. Khanduri, a retired army engineer who cites Rudolph W. Giuliani
      >>as a role model, did imbue the project with both military discipline
      >>and a patriotic ethos. He told contractors, "You are not only
      >>making money, you are building a nation."
      >>
      >>But that nation's people had their own opinions, plenty of them.
      >>India's democracy may have been imposed by a nationalist elite,
      >>but the idea had taken root and was bubbling up from below.
      >>
      >>Truckers went on strike against the taxes and tolls. Citizens
      >>blocked the highway, stopped construction and staged hunger
      >>strikes to demand underpasses, overpasses and cattle
      >>crossings. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, but their
      >>point was made. Highway officials say future projects are being
      >>designed with far more local input - an accountability that may
      >>give India a long-term edge over authoritarian China.
      >>
      >>Still, Mr. Khanduri is wistful about China, where officials
      >>can literally pave over objections. On every infrastructure front,
      >>India has fallen well behind China, although debate over whether
      >>the blame for that lies with democracy or just with India's
      >>short practice of it is an enduring Indian pastime. Having
      >>invested more than 10 times as much as India since the mid-1990's,
      >>China now has 15 times the expressway length.
      >>
      >>Mr. Khanduri conceded that China's system has its own price,
      >>but concluded of India's experience, "So many constraints are there
      >>in a democratic society."
      >>
      >>Clearing a Path
      >>
      >>The air in Rashidpur village, in the state of Uttar Pradesh,
      >>smelled of betel juice and excrement, and festered with raw
      >>feelings. The authorities had come and "done the needful," to use
      >>a favorite Indian saying, smashing houses into piles of bricks to
      >>clear a path for the highway. Dust from the demolitions still seemed
      >>to hover in the village.
      >>
      >>Resentment certainly did.
      >>
      >>Building a highway is by nature a violent act, since everything in
      >>its path must yield. So the project has cut a swath of
      >>destruction, swallowing thousands of acres of farmland, shearing
      >>off the fronts of thousands of homes. Smashed walls and piles of
      >>bricks line the route like broken teeth.
      >>
      >>The process of acquiring the land along the highway - 20,574
      >>acres - has delayed the project more than anything else. Once
      >>scheduled to be finished in December 2003, the highway is some
      >>three years behind.
      >>
      >>The government has the power of eminent domain, but it must
      >>compensate for land taken, relying on cumbersome regulations and
      >>a revolving door of local officials.
      >>
      >>Land prices recorded on paper routinely bear no relation to
      >>actual market value. Often, people have refused to vacate until
      >>they received satisfactory payment. Even where the price was
      >>right, the emotional toll was heavy. Land and home here are
      >>primal possessions - a tie to ancestral roots that extend
      >>back centuries, a legacy to children, a link to rural life in
      >>an urbanizing society.
      >>
      >>The process has left bruised feelings, reflecting the distance
      >>between impoverished, often illiterate citizens and an
      >>administration whose structure and attitude can seem frozen in
      >>colonial amber.
      >>
      >>"They spoke what you call police language, I can say it was
      >>indecent," an indignant 68-year-old named R. S. Dubey said of
      >>the officials who had come to oversee the destruction of his
      >>family home.
      >>
      >>Navigating Religion
      >>
      >>Neem. Mango. Sisam. Most delicate of all, holy peepul, the
      >>Indian fig, which could not be cut without prime
      >>ministerial dispensation. In work contracts several phone books
      >>thick, every tree that would be felled for the highway's
      >>construction was documented before its demise.
      >>
      >>This reflected not only the bureaucracy that had slowed the
      >>project, despite the efforts of Mr. Khanduri, the former roads
      >>minister. For Hindus, trees are sacred; one highway official
      >>said Muslims were sometimes hired to cut them down at night.
      >>
      >>Then there were the hundreds, or thousands, of religious
      >>institutions that lined the highway. Contractors were required
      >>to move or rebuild every one. On some stretches, contractors said
      >>they suspected that new religious structures had been hastily
      >>nailed together to extract compensation for their moving.
      >>Hindu contractors and officials whispered about the "sensitivities"
      >>of moving mosques for fear of offending India's Muslim minority.
      >>
      >>The process was careful, but imperfect. In the south the earth
      >>movers preparing the way for the highway churned up the bones of
      >>the dead next to a Shiite Muslim shrine. Muhammad Shah, 74,
      >>tender of the shrine, gathered and reburied them.
      >>
      >>"They could have been anyone's ancestors," he said in the
      >>purpling dusk, a long beard lengthening an already sorrowful
      >>face. "They could have been mine."
      >>
      >>Roadside Attractions
      >>
      >>In October 2003, Yogendra Singh, a hotel manager, bought a plot
      >>of land from a farmer in the village of Raipur. Mr. Singh, from
      >>the nearby city of Kanpur, had no interest in agriculture, but
      >>every interest in what he saw supplanting it.
      >>
      >>The land was next to the highway, on which construction was well
      >>under way. Mr. Singh foresaw that a steady increase in traffic
      >>would follow its completion. He imagined, among other things,
      >>tourists driving from the Taj Mahal to Varanasi, an unthinkable
      >>passage on the extant roads. He opened Shiv Restaurant, where
      >>the chickens are killed in the basement and served on the ground
      >>floor, and he planted a garden out back and planned a hotel.
      >>
      >>America's early interstate years had their own such visionaries,
      >>like the men who built an empire of Holiday Inns. Mr. Singh's
      >>dreams may not be on that scale, but these are early days, and he
      >>is not alone. Land prices along the highway have shot up, as
      >>farmers who see little future in farming have cashed out,
      >>and entrepreneurs who see gold in asphalt have bought in.
      >>
      >>"The entire stretch has been sold off," Mr. Singh, 40, said of
      >>the land along the highway.
      >>
      >>With construction nearly done in Raipur, Mr. Singh's place was
      >>already a popular way station, and his land had almost doubled
      >>in value. It was not hard to imagine how different life along
      >>the highway could look in a few years. The newly rich farmer
      >>who sold his land to Mr. Singh, meanwhile, had moved to the
      >>city of Kanpur.
      >>
      >>Picking Up Speed
      >>
      >>In the village of Kaushambi, in Uttar Pradesh, Anil Kumar, a
      >>34-year-old shopkeeper, watched truck traffic speed by on the
      >>widened highway and explained how the artery's revamping
      >>had reconfigured long-held local geography.
      >>
      >>Because vehicles rarely traveled at more than 25 miles an hour,
      >>village life had always happened on both sides of the road. The
      >>two-lane highway inhabited space, but did not define it. The
      >>railway station and village hand pump were on one side, the
      >>school and fields on the other. Women roamed across the
      >>land, indifferent to whether soil or asphalt was beneath
      >>their feet, gathering wood, water, the harvest.
      >>
      >>In India roads have been public spaces, home to the logical chaos
      >>that governs so much of life. They have been commas, not
      >>periods, pauses, not breaks.
      >>
      >>The redone highway has challenged that, trying to impose borders
      >>and linearity, sometimes controlling pedestrian (and bovine)
      >>access to ensure drivers' speed. In Kaushambi, the highway
      >>planners put concrete walls on both sides to ensure that
      >>neither crossing pedestrians nor trucks stopping to shop would
      >>slow traffic. There were cuts every 380 yards or so, requiring
      >>detours for crossing. Cars and trucks sped along at 70 or 80
      >>miles an hour.
      >>
      >>The women with bundles atop their heads now had to walk to a cut
      >>in the wall, and then sprint across. Even that had not saved
      >>Parwathi Devi, 70, from a cut lip and head from a speeding car
      >>as she ran across with dried plant stalks on her head. For
      >>many rural Indians, insulated from the westernizing of urban
      >>India, the highway is the most dramatic change in their
      >>lifetimes. All along the route, the disorientation showed in
      >>the faces of uncomprehending pedestrians who darted out in front
      >>of cars coming fast enough to kill.
      >>
      >>The highway was bifurcating Kaushambi, too. Villagers had begun
      >>pressing district officials for a second hand-pump so women
      >>wouldn't have to keep crossing for water.
      >>
      >>"It is almost like two villages now," Mr. Kumar said.
      >>
      >>Service With a Smile
      >>
      >>In a perky blue uniform, 34-year-old Pradeep Kumar stepped
      >>forward to pump gas with a smile. He had reason to: he had been
      >>coached on American-style, customer-comes-first service, and in an
      >>area of north India with rampant unemployment, he was thrilled just
      >>to have a job. That it made little use of his bachelor's degree
      >>in political science was of secondary concern.
      >>
      >>Where crops once grew along the Golden Quadrilateral, gas stations
      >>are sprouting. Mr. Kumar's employer near Allahabad - Reliance
      >>Industries Ltd., one of India's largest private conglomerates and
      >>a petroleum giant - is planning 5,000 stations. Perhaps more than
      >>any company, it has grasped the highway's commercial potential.
      >>
      >>Commerce along the American interstate system began with quirky
      >>roadside establishments. Over time it evolved toward
      >>deliberately homogenized chains - McDonald's, Motel 6 - whose
      >>signs meant familiarity in unfamiliar terrain.
      >>
      >>Reliance has leapfrogged that process, making itself the Golden
      >>Arches of the Golden Quadrilateral. Its British-designed gas
      >>stations are identically bright and streamlined, with
      >>computerized billing and clean, airy dhabas, or
      >>restaurants.
      >>
      >>That the stations feel American is not accidental: Reliance had
      >>hired as a consultant the Flying J Company of Ogden, Utah, which
      >>runs diesel stations and travel plazas across the United States.
      >>
      >>The growth of gas stations suggested the way India's
      >>agricultural society is yielding not to an industrial economy,
      >>but a service one. Fifty percent of India's gross domestic
      >>product is now in the service sector, compared with
      >>25 percent apiece for manufacturing and agriculture.
      >>
      >>In 21st-century India, the $50 a month that Mr. Kumar, the
      >>attendant, was earning was still more than farming would
      >>pay.
      >>
      >>An Easier Journey
      >>
      >>Nathu Yadav was burning, his body morphing into a plume of smoke
      >>and ash that moved out over the sacred water of the Ganges. His
      >>soul, Hindus believe, was being liberated in the process.
      >>
      >>Mr. Yadav was 95 when he died, the oldest man in his village.
      >>His family rode 14 hours in a bus - the body stored on top - to
      >>reach Varanasi, Hinduism's holiest city.
      >>
      >>The river was, in essence, India's first highway, and the
      >>bodies were once brought down it. Now they come by train, or the
      >>Grand Trunk Road, which had brought Mr. Yadav's body and family
      >>from Bihar state.
      >>
      >>"God bless Sher Shah Suri for making this road!" his son, Adya
      >>Prasad, exclaimed.
      >>
      >>The road's condition has long been less of a blessing, a state
      >>the new highway project is changing. That is welcome news to the
      >>family that runs the Harishchandra ghat, where Mr. Prasad's father
      >>was burning. Members of the Dom caste have manned this ghat, named
      >>for a legendary king, since ancient times. The ritual is essential,
      >>but the act of touching the dead is reviled by upper castes. It
      >>is a job of smoke-in-the-face indignities consigned to
      >>untouchables.
      >>
      >>The new highway will ease one unpleasant aspect. "In summer,
      >>the bodies start to smell," said Matru Choudhary, a 47-year-old
      >>Dom with a morose mien. "The faster they can come, the better."
      >>
      >>Bureaucracy and Bandits
      >>
      >>In the shade of a makeshift shelter at the border crossing
      >>between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two truckers were killing time
      >>on string cots. They wanted to move from one state to another,
      >>but given India's cumbersome, often corrupt interstate bureaucracy,
      >>they might as well have been trying to pass to Pakistan.
      >>
      >>It was noon, and they had been waiting five hours, their trucks
      >>among hundreds parked in endless lines. They figured they would
      >>pass by nightfall, after paying a bribe on top of the interstate
      >>tax.
      >>
      >>The improved highway was already easing their passage and saving
      >>them time, the truckers said, cutting their drive from New
      >>Delhi to Calcutta to three days from five. They relished the new
      >>ease of the ride.
      >>
      >>But the improvements had not addressed other obstacles. Petty
      >>extortion by officials was common at many border posts. In the
      >>north, bandits, or dacoits, robbed truckers on the highway.
      >>
      >>"In Bihar, they'll cut off your neck and leave you six inches
      >>shorter," said Rajesh Sham Singh, 30.
      >>
      >>Kamludeen Khan, 38, said, "The police don't do anything," except
      >>join in the extortion, stopping trucks at night to demand bribes.
      >>At least with the bandits, there was a chance of escape.
      >>
      >>Feats of Engineering
      >>
      >>At night on a floodlit bridge in Bihar, a chain of women moved
      >>in graceful tandem, hoisting buckets of cement onto their head
      >>and hurrying to pour before it hardened. Imported from southern
      >>India, they were living in a meager shanty camp next to the
      >>highway, earning less than $40 a month.
      >>
      >>Such mingling of primitive methods with the mechanization mostly
      >>being used to construct the Quadrilateral fascinated the
      >>Korean engineers ensconced 12 miles down the road, in a camp
      >>near the town of Aurangabad. Employed by Ssangyong, a construction
      >>giant in South Korea, they came to the state of Bihar to work on
      >>the highway with an Indian company, Oriental Structural Engineers
      >>Pvt. Ltd. "We in Korea have never seen people putting cement
      >>on their heads," said M. S. Won, a planning engineer. "We only
      >>use machines."
      >>
      >>His boss, Noh Sung Hwan, was a cheery man who spoke a smattering
      >>of Hindi and had taught his Indian cook to make kimchi. Having
      >>arrived with an appreciation of India's rich engineering history,
      >>he was soon well versed in its current challenges.
      >>
      >>They had far less to do with building the highway than with the
      >>forces circling it. This stretch of Bihar was home to often
      >>violent local mafias, some tied to a Maoist insurgency that
      >>has spread through at least 11 states.
      >>
      >>Some three years ago the Maoists attacked a construction plant
      >>for the highway, and fractured the bones of a project manager
      >>with rifle butts and sticks. The Maoists occupied the plant
      >>for months while negotiations dragged on over how much it would
      >>cost to buy their cooperation.
      >>
      >>"India is very fantastic," Mr. Noh said. "Just a little bit
      >>risky."
      >>
      >>A Study in Limits
      >>
      >>For four years, the Indian project managers and engineers of
      >>Oriental Structural had been living in enclosed camps next to
      >>the highway, serenaded nonstop by truck horns.
      >>
      >>In the camp near Aurangabad, Bihar, 18 families and some
      >>30 single men found their entertainment in a volleyball and
      >>badminton court, television and cold beer. Most of them were
      >>from Punjab or southern India. Bihar was as much of a foreign
      >>country to them as it was to their Korean counterparts, a
      >>country they could not wait to leave.
      >>
      >>The sociologist Yogendra Yadav calls Bihar a metaphor: for the
      >>rest of India, it represents being poor. Bihar offers a reflection
      >>at which ascendant India recoils.
      >>
      >>Bihar is home to more than 82 million people and some of India's
      >>most storied history. Bodhgaya, where Buddha achieved
      >>enlightenment, is only a few miles off the highway. The area was
      >>once a center of democracy and learning, and of India's freedom
      >>struggle against the British.
      >>
      >>Today, Bihar is a study in democracy's limits. Villagers depend
      >>on doctors who are quacks, schoolteachers who siphon government
      >>grain meant for children, policemen who charge businesses to
      >>provide security.
      >>
      >>Bihar, by most measures, is India's poorest state. Migration
      >>to other states for work is epidemic. Only 5 percent of rural
      >>households have electricity.
      >>
      >>J. P. Gupta, the jovial Punjabi project manager at the
      >>Aurangabad camp, spent his mornings appeasing the gods, praying
      >>first in his car, then in his office, then much of the rest of
      >>his days appeasing local politicians. Politics was a business
      >>here, he said.
      >>
      >>Biharis did not want the road, one engineer asserted,
      >>because they preferred a potholed one that would make it easier
      >>to rob passing trucks.
      >>
      >>Farther east along the highway, near the town of Mahapur,
      >>dozens of armed guards patrolled another camp where more
      >>Oriental Structural employees had bunkered down. Its chief
      >>project manager, P. Nageswara Rao, gray-haired, and on this
      >>project, usually grim-faced, never left camp without an armed
      >>escort.
      >>
      >>Buddha preached ahimsa, or nonviolence, in the area, "but the
      >>most crime is here," he said. "For nothing they will kill the
      >>people."
      >>
      >>His camp, to the east of Mr. Gupta's, operated under an even
      >>greater threat of violence. What appeared to be an armed robbery
      >>nearby took the life of a government engineer working on the
      >>project; it took seven months to fill his shoes.
      >>
      >>Mr. Rao had no pesky politicians to deal with, but only because
      >>even they feared the Maoists. Government had all but melted away
      >>here. From the highway, the Maoists extorted money and, for
      >>followers, jobs.
      >>
      >>The Maoist movement had begun with a 1968 agrarian peasant
      >>uprising in West Bengal. In the years since, Naxalites, as
      >>the rebels are known, have flourished, penetrating, with arms
      >>and ideology, the many corners where prosperity has yet to
      >>reach.
      >>
      >>Mahapur, Bihar, is one such corner.
      >>
      >>Poverty and Promise
      >>
      >>In a gilding morning light on the margins of the Grand Trunk
      >>Road, a fight broke out over wet concrete.
      >>
      >>A hailstorm the night before soaked the ground before the
      >>concrete could finish drying. So scarecrow-like scavengers had
      >>come out to scrounge the wet muck. An emaciated Bishnuji Bagwan,
      >>at least 90 and wearing little more than rags, had brought his
      >>wife, children and grandchildren to collect enough of it to shore
      >>up his dilapidated house. Malti Devi, mother of four, married to
      >>a man she called useless, wanted to smooth her floor.
      >>
      >>One family accused another of greed, and the fight began.
      >>Ms. Devi shrugged off the finger-pointing, hoisted a load atop
      >>her head, and headed across the highway.
      >>
      >>"It's my share of concrete," she said. "If someone takes it,
      >>won't I fight?"
      >>
      >>She called the highway a "blessing," and said she had never
      >>seen anything like it. And it holds promise for Indians like
      >>her, with data showing that proximity to a real highway could
      >>alleviate poverty.
      >>
      >>For now, the villagers living along the route rarely had bus
      >>fare to reach nearby Mahapur. For them, the highway was more
      >>spectacle than utility.
      >>
      >>An American Dream
      >>
      >>As Ms. Devi was lugging wet concrete into her mud house,
      >>Mr. Rao, the project manager, was counting the days until he
      >>could take highway, train and plane, and escape for a holiday
      >>in America.
      >>
      >>He had three daughters living there, one a computer engineer,
      >>the other two married to computer engineers. Most of his
      >>engineers - almost all, like him, from the southern state of
      >>Andhra Pradesh - had relatives in America, too.
      >>
      >>If Bihar was enemy territory for the professionals roosting
      >>in rugged camps to build India's dream highway, America was the
      >>promised land. India's traffic with America has never been
      >>higher; sending a child there had become a middle-class "craze,"
      >>in one engineer's word.
      >>
      >>The founding elites of India were British-educated. Today, the
      >>ambitious young pursue degrees from Wharton and Stanford, with
      >>some 80,000 Indian students in the United States. Two million
      >>Indians live there, working as doctors, software engineers, and
      >>motel owners along America's highways.
      >>
      >>No surprise, then, that America has shaped the ideas of what
      >>India's highway can be. Mr. Rao's deputy, B. K. Rami Reddy,
      >>also with a daughter in America, was nearly breathless as he
      >>described one stretch of finished roadway in southern India: "You
      >>really feel like you are in the U.S., it is so nice. When you go
      >>on that road, you feel you are somewhere else."
      >>
      >>The implicit effort to make India "somewhere else," more like
      >>America, more of the first world and less of the third, girds
      >>this entire project. With the highway and India's accompanying
      >>rise, Mr. Rao predicted that by 2010 or 2020, "Indians may not
      >>feel the need to go abroad."
      >>
      >>"This highway will really change the face of India," he said.
      >>
      >>Time Travel
      >>
      >>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.
      >>
      >>Each year the permanent residents were joined by temporary
      >>migrants, idol-makers who came from their villages to work
      >>their craft for Calcutta's festival for the 10-armed goddess,
      >>Durga, the invincible killer of demons. Statues of Saraswati,
      >>the goddess of knowledge, lay cast off under the highway
      >>overpass, waiting to be resurrected. From above came the
      >>sound of speeding cars.
      >>
      >> * Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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