This is about something close to home that has been irking me no end for a long time. A tiny stretch of highway in a more or less permanently hopeless condition has been making an otherwise swift and pleasurable road trip to Kolkata a nightmare, and nobody really seems to care.
As I think I have said before, I regard the building of this new highway as one of the few unequivocally good things that have happened to this town in the last forty years. It has cut down travelling time to half, made driving a pleasure rather than a nasty chore, and greatly increased land values in and around Durgapur, among other things. It comes back to me that back in December 2000, when we were going to Asansol to catch a train for a holiday trip, we were marvelling at how much smoother and wider the road now was. And already at that time we were talking about how all the ‘flyovers’ had made things simpler for highway drivers (much of the time on the road earlier was spent idling at railway crossings), and how only a little narrow congested stretch through Panagarh was keeping things from being idyllic: how it had become essential for the road and bridge to be widened, and for a flyover to be thrown over the crowded market stretch.
In the years that followed, the luxury Volvo buses came into regular service, and travelling by road became a dream: I have sometimes done the trip in two and a half hours flat, sleeping comfortably all the way. Things had changed so much that the airconditioned coaches in the trains were rarely filled up any more. And yet, there was this one nagging glitch: people in thousands of buses, cars and trucks got stuck for long spells at traffic jams only at Panagarh.
And now, with the road in that short stretch having become filled with potholes and frequently waterlogged, the nightmare has returned in full force. People are getting stuck for hours together, and accidents, even fatal ones, have become a daily routine, as this news report takes note. I find it strange to think that despite the daily suffering of so many people, and the colossal waste of time and money, the authorities are dragging their feet over making essential repairs, leave alone starting construction of that long-delayed flyover. Ten years is not enough to address a major public grievance in this country, which, as so many people insist, is ‘progressing’ very rapidly. Apparently even the land needed to widen the road was acquired as long ago as 2003, and yet! If I know the authorities concerned (and I learnt a great deal about them in my journalistic days), the district magistrate would pass the buck to the National Highway Authority, who would in turn blame either the finance ministry for not coughing up the funds needed or the local politicians for creating hindrances every inch of the way, who in all probability would point at the strenuous objections of the hundreds of shopkeepers of various descriptions whose establishments line both sides of the road – objections which couldn’t be addressed one way or the other in a whole decade! As my father used to say, ‘Not taking a decision is itself a decision, and that is one thing we Indians are congenitally good at.’ I wonder: would this kind of a logjam have been allowed to persist for so long in either a capitalist country like Germany or a communist dispensation like China? Or is there something special about India that cannot be understood in terms of these paradigms?
[psst: Do vote on my poll if you haven’t already]