December 03, 2005
"The rural landscape, formerly painted in pointillist detail, becomes a blur, an abstraction"
Posted by Gordon Smith

India's new highway system will change the country in uncertain ways, and the NYT offers an excellent view of the project, including an interactive feature. The central themes are economy, bureaucracy, and religion. Consider the issue of trees:

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.

As for the economy, highways need gasoline stations:

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....

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.

There is the inevitable comparison to China ("Having invested more than 10 times as much as India since the mid-1990's, China now has 15 times the expressway length."), but India has more problems than just the length of its highways. Consider the border crossings between Indian states, where local officials demand bribes from truckers. The trip from New Delhi to Calcutta -- 811 miles -- still takes truckers three days. That's better than the five days that were required before the highway, but that's a (long) one-day trip in the U.S.

I haven't even mentioned the bandits and the Maoists. Read the whole story and watch the interactive feature. Both are well done.

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