23rd August, 2012
Over the past decade and half India’s government conceived and implemented the plan to widen the country’s major highways. This included in the first phase the old Grand Trunk Road running east to west across north India through the vast plains and densely populated villages along the road. Millions of ancient fruiting and sacred indigenous trees were felled, and in the Jharkhand forested area the road ploughed through the forest. The existing eighty feet wide highway area was doubled, in some places almost tripled. This was the legendary road developed by Sher Shah and the Mughals in Delhi and later was to prove useful to the East India Company in 1772 in pushing its domain westward across northern India. This became a flagship project under the so called Golden Quadrilateral Project (linking Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata), the presently called National Highway 1. It is impossible to comprehend what such a project across a densely populated, forested and agricultural country like India could do. Two lane highways were expanded into treeless, habitationless, desert like tracts winding across the endless north Indian plain, in summer cutting all traditional transport connectivity between villages. India has planned to widen 70,934 kilometres of such highways eventually. The idea began during the BJP government when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee conceived it fourteen years ago (1998). Originally called The Golden Quadrilateral Project it was implemented by the National Highways Development Project to upgrade, widen, rehabilitate India’s major highways, in various stages. Managed by the National Highways Authority of India under the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, it was implemented with an outlay of USD 60 billion (INR 3,00,000 crores) (USD 71 billion as of 2006). The highways to be upgraded through this dream project cover in its first phase, the golden quadrilateral 5846 kilometres initiated by then Prime Minister A.B.Vajpayee which is estimated to cost USD 6.8 billion funded by special petroleum tax revenues and loans from international banks, including the World Bank. Sixty percent of the project is to be privately financed. The World Bank has reportedly already given a loan of USD 40 billion for the overall highways expansion project. It is designed along American lines and the highways themselves when completed will largely resemble the treeless barren highways of the United States.
In its second phase the project covers the north-south 2000 kilometres (Srinagar to Kanyakumari), east-west 2000 kilometers ( Silchar in the North-east to Porbandar in western Gujarat). It is definitely the “mother and father of all Silk Roads”! In the third phase the government recently approved upgrading 12,109 kilometres of highways on a Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) basis handed to contractors and which will expand existing highways between state capitals and economic centres across India. Contracts have been awarded for 2075 kilometres. Later more such expansion phases will come.
God alone knows the effects which they will have on both the common man and the environment – both of which do not appear in India’s economic chart. Because I have been witness to its destructive potential at first hand I am fearful for the overall impact of this kind of project on the whole nation. Certainly it will usher in a sea-change, but will the impacts of this new addiction bear good fruit? In my opinion it can not.
This ambitious project has shown its destructiveness to villages in its way, and the roadside trees which were the glory of Mughal roads in India, and in our region which were developed by Sher Shah. As the road widening slowly started showing its effects we witnessed the disappearance of the landscape along the roads, the wholesale cutting down of massive trees. My own N.H 33 in Hazaribagh was denuded of an estimated fifty thousand ancient trees on its way to Ranchi barely 100 kilometres away. Hundreds of thousands of smaller trees also disappeared along the highway. From Kolkata to Barhi to Benares and Allahabad and on to Delhi the old Grand Trunk Road became a barren treeless mass of linear concrete winding across the northern plain, the villages on its both sides being largely destroyed by the massive ever widening concrete road running through; small towns felt the full wrath of the highway with hundreds of thousands of solid brick and cement houses being destroyed. Where there were forests such as in the highlands of Jharkhand, these were mowed down. In bigger towns and cities immense flyovers and by-passes were built. The present highway expansion across India covers a distance of 60,000 kilometres at a cost of approximately a billion dollars for every thousand kilometers. The loss of buildings and normal life along the highways is not calculated, nor is the ecological costs incurred through cutting down of ancient shade, fruit, and sacred trees like banyan (ficus bengalensis) andpipul (Ficus religiosa). Other valuable trees like mango (Mangoferus indica) and neem (azadirachta indica) have been destroyed by the millions. I have seen the effects of this highway expansion in my home state of Jharkhand first-hand and the effects it is having on the roadside buildings and populations, often very poor people, as well as the clearing of all the roadside trees that formerly provided shade during the very hot summer. The summer temperatures every year are dramatically rising, the concrete highway being a burning concrete strip, while rainfall patterns in these areas has dwindled affecting the rice plantations along the highway. Millions of hectares of rice fields have also become victims of highway expansion. The National Highway 33 passes through Hazaribagh, the town where I live, a stretch of slightly over four hundred kilometers connecting the nearby town of Barhi (on N.H.1) and the town of Baharagora in the southwest on the border of Jharkhand with the state of Orissa. This road is entirely within Jharkhand state. It is only one of the many similar highways in my region being destroyed to create a new India. Like all other state development projects the costs are not counted, neither human, social or ecological costs which will be handed over to future generations of Indians. There is another cost, the one of the aesthetic loss to the nation. The danger of the highways expansion is not only affecting the national highways, but is also affecting state highways, which are being developed from two to four lanes as well. The roadside trees and villages face the same harrowing fate as the “national” highways have started. Recently I visited south Jharkhand and saw the road from Simdega to Kunkurri being widened, a distance of approximately a hundred and odd kilometers. The present roads in the small township of Simdega are hellish, so is the present road from Simdega to Kunkurri (In Chhatisgarh state) is equally hellish, but instead of repairing the existing roads a massive new highway is planned. In the small village of Kurdeg which is on this highway I was shown where 40 feet on either side of the existing 80 feet wide road would destroy houses. It was an appalling sight, but in retrospect only a microcosm in comparison to what is happening in almost every district of India even now as I write!
When will modern India learn to value her own great traditional wealth and stop imitating the west? When will we learn to stand on our own feet? I return to Hazaribagh.
Earlier the N.H.33 ran through the most picturesque hilly scenery imaginable running from the plateau of Hazaribagh through densely forested Ghats to the beautiful valley of the Damodar which has been turned into a desert of concrete arteries, underground coal mine fires smoking beside the highway, atmospheric pollution so dense you can cut it with a knife, coal blackened streams and shanties in which the coal blackened faces of the former healthy tribes-people stare at you as you pass in your air-conditioned vehicle. THIS is the cost of modern India’s development. The poor and their lands have been sacrificed, the minerals stripped by the state, and the residue of humanity left to rot by the wayside…When one revisits this stretch of road from the still “pleasant leafy town of Hazaribagh” (Lonely Planet Guide) in the observations of a famous administrator during far-off British days – F.B.Bradley-Birt in his book CHOTA NAGPORE: A Little-known Province of the Empire (1903) – one is immediately transported into the past. He has left us with an unforgettable view of these plateaux – the old road from Giridih to Hazaribagh; the approach to the Ranchi plateau from Purulia; and of course the road from Hazaribagh down to the once-beautiful valley of the Damodar, and up the picturesque hill ranges to the fertile farmland of Ranchi plateau mainly inhabited by the Oraon and Munda tribes. I know that things change, but change has been brought too fast and haphazardly in modern India. England may not be exactly as Caesar knew it, but when I have driven by the English shires I have been constantly aware of the preservation of the lovely English landscape, and its archaeological sites (even Stonehenge!). There has to be in the official developers of nations a sense of history, an appreciation of landscapes, and a respect for citizens’ rights. In modern India these senses and understandings have been completely lost. It happened during the 1950s in Soviet Russia, it is happening even now in China. India must learn to understand the value to future generation in the preservation of its social and natural environment for future generations. We do not want to leave them a desert of a once fruitful and bountiful land? The government’s preoccupation with the Neo-Liberalism, the Economy and Growth, has led to the destruction of modern Indian society and the environment. I know that the once red-gravel (morum) highways had to become tar-macadam sometime, even as they are now turned into cement-concrete, but why have we lost the old sense of the need to preserve what we in fact do not need to destroy. To destroy something for a brief momentary gain to incur a significant long-term loss is either highway robbery or crass stupidity. I think our modern Indian planners are guilty of both. The administrators being government servants can do little but take orders and sometimes reap side benefits, the politicians and legislators steer a course for personal and party profit.
The Hazaribagh-Ranchi stretch of the N.H.33 described by Bradley-Birt is today a sight of the most abject desolation where hundreds of thousands of roadside trees have been systematically cut, some very ancient, using villagers’ axes and JCB machines to carry the old trunks away, village houses and small-town buildings have been swept away, crumbling ruins and slum shanties everywhere, millions displaced. I heard that when a search for the felled trees was made they were untraceable, the timber having been pirated! These things are taken for granted in modern India, after all there are bigger scams happening in New Delhi! This is always the excuse for not reacting to scams at the state level – the scams are bigger in the national capital!!
The greatest danger to the fabric of India’s human and natural environment is overlooked in contrast to the scale of India herself – a vast and almost limitless land, a densely inhabited and rich agricultural and forested habitat from the rising Himalayas in the north to the sun swept lands of the south and fairly barren Deccan plateaux, nursed on either sides by the Eastern and Western Ghats which stand as ramparts over the Bay of Bengal in the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. When the National Highways Project is seen in context of Indian highways it accounts for only a mere two percent of India’s highways (much left by the British) but the new highways being widened are crucial for economic development since they carry 40 percent of India’s industrial traffic. With the government’s promotion of economic liberalism ever since Rajiv Gandhi introduced this as state policy during the 1980s, to the efforts of successive governments, prime ministers and finance ministers, both of the BJP and Congress, the mantra of economic development sounded sweet and economic liberalism was promoted as government policy in this “developing the nation”. With the rapid increase of economic-liberalism and the increasing advent of corporations and government’s privatization of public sector industries the effects of the world economic order started to weigh heavily on Indian priorities. The evolving corporate state has become the anathema of everything which Gandhi envisioned for modern India. The peoples’ lands are being grabbed at gunpoint, sectors of tribal society are being declared terrorists and hunted down, stricter and stricter legislation is being imposed and in my view India is evolving towards a police state. But democracy still stands. Unlike in Pakistan or China we can still speak our minds in public. But for how long? George Bernard Shaw in his inimitable way once remarked “Democracy is not real freedom”. He was referring to government. Democracy is all about government and not about freedom. It is perhaps the greatest hoax perpetrated against freedom, whether Abe Lincoln would have liked it or not. And so we are saddled with government, and dissent against government policy can make one anything from a seditionist to an anarchist, let alone a Luddite. But I still hold India is a Democracy in the best sense because its citizens – at least up until this moment – can voice dissent. Perhaps it is a carry-over from the nationalist freedom movement, the idealizing of the dissent of India’s freedom fighters against British rule, the creation of martyrs, and the distribution of Tamba-0patras (Copper Plate awards) to Freedom Fighters. The fight for India’s independence from British rule laid down the foundations upon which modern India was built.
However, to return to the subject of these new national highways being drawn out by planners in New Delhi sitting in air-conditioned buildings, to the common man living with his family along the remnants of his house on a new highway being built …. Supposedly for the welfare of his children (!) is a long distance. As we have seen the National Highways expansion project is not only mind boggling for a nation in which 40 percent live below the poverty line (50 cents a day), but also in the scale of its mass destruction of trees and the cost to the nation of losing housing whose value to the common man have never been taken into consideration both as national assets or as the production of human resources of Indians themselves which are national assets in the long run. On the other hands the dozens of billions of dollars in loans which the government is taking from international banks including the World Bank (I am informed USD 40 billion) is money in the government’s hands on the hypothecation of the nation’s natural reserves, which should be seen as an impoverishment of this nation. The human and ecological losses can never be calculated. As India presents itself as a growing economy so too daily India is falling into the trap of other developed nations relying on foreign banks…. It is falling into a debt-trap from which it cannot emerge, and which will have to be faced by future generations – and our rising population, climate change, and resulting lack of will to live will destroy the fabric of future Indian life.
Bulu Imam is a cultural activist and joint recipient of The Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award 2011. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Gandhi Foundation.