Why we'll never be a first-world country S. MUTHIAH
For 40 years or more I've driven south and back on NH 45 at least five or six times a year. And over the years, I've seen how this two-lane trunk road connecting Madras and Tiruchi has developed till it has become today's splendid 4-6 lane highway that makes driving on it a pleasure. But that's about the only pleasure you'll get out of it. That you don't get more is entirely due to your and my fellow citizens.
On my most recent trip, I found I had to negotiate six toll stations varying in construction from shiny and modern to tin shed, featureless and deteriorating fast. One of them intriguingly asks for Rs.56 for a one-way toll, making you wonder about the significance of the number, while all of them can be counted on to ask you for change; never hand over Rs.40 for a Rs.35 toll unless you have a Rs.5 coin or note handy, otherwise your wait will take you longer than usual. In the case of that unique toll, make sure you have a rupee coin on you too, besides the five rupee one. The other thing they have in common is that none of them has `pit stop' facilities, even though they have several buildings on either side of them and scores of staff hanging around; in fact, at a couple of stations, they have someone to collect your money, hand it to the toll collector, get from him your ticket and hand it to you (that's how we ensure employment in these parts!)
Toll booths, however, are only incidental to the NH 45 experience. Basic to it are `pit stops', or `loos', if you will. The toll booths, with their spacing and manpower and spaciousness, would be the ideal location for them, supplemented by food courts. But what we have is numerous neatly maintained petrol bunks as well as almost as many `hotels', besides a few truck layovers, including a rather modernistically designed one between Ulundurpet and Villupuram which has an orange sunshade, purple pillars and greenish and creamish walls. All of them have loos, but none of the loos seem to have usable fixtures. Toilets bowls and basins are broken, taps are missing, the floors are awash with water and I know not what else, doors and windows are in pieces and of staff there seems to be no one around. At that `posh' truck layover, every tap at its drinking water trough had its faucet removed, and bare-bodied, scantily clad truckers slept wherever they felt like, including beside the toilet door. As for the food at some of the `hotels' some of which even seem to have rooms, though of what sort I have no idea it's so bad ( and served worse) that I'm ready to vote KFC, Macdonald's and Barista in, if they'll offer the same standards, food-wise and toilet-wise, as they do in urban areas.
For years my regular pit-stop was the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation's `hotel' at Ulundurpet, halfway point for us. Now that the highway bypasses it, we don't stop there. But on the last trip we decided to do so because, despite all such ills as listed above, its food is a little better, is served with a warmer smile, and its toilets broken and shabby as they are are still a mite less putting-off for minimal use. Deciding to go back to old Ulundurpet only demonstrated how badly the public facilities on the 325-km stretch are used and maintained. Surely, better run pit stops at the toll booths that will get that entire staff better occupied is something that might be considered by the Highways Authority?
But toilets are only part of the travellers' woes. As you leave and enter Chennai and travel through the suburbs, say from around Maraimalainagar, every so often, the highway drastically narrows in the built-up areas. Starting this process of getting you to forget highway speed is Ford's, which takes up a whole lane and more for about a mile for its car-carriers. Business certainly looks good, but would they get away with something like this on a highway in the U.S. or wherever else they are? And then as you travel on, every urban stretch of the highway has encroachments shops, vehicles, people, what have you. There are very attractively designed bus stops. But who's in the bus shelter? Everyone's on the road and the bus halts in the middle lane of what is meant to be an express highway!
Following for a while a bus marked "Express Service', but which snailed its way forward, I couldn't help laughing at the ironies of India. In Tambaram, near Chennai, we stopped behind it as it, in turn, stopped behind a long line of buses. There were two huge bus sheds meant to be waiting halls as well as parking slots for the vehicles. No vehicle seemed to want to use the cavernous structures, nor did the passengers who all crowded on to the highway together with a myriad vendors. It took 90 minutes to get from Tambaram to Teynampet in the heart of Chennai, at 5.30 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon.
It's all well and good to say that `that's India'. But until we use public property and highways are as much public property as are public toilets and restaurants run by whatever sector I can't see Shining India ever getting into the First World. How do we go about stopping the way we desecrate public property day in and day out?
(The writer's email is: smuthiah.mes@...)