We’re on the Road to Nowhere

I know in my last post I argued there’s no such thing as developed and undeveloped, which, as Vince Carducci rightfully observed in his comment, is more an attempt to think beyond that particular dichotomy than suggest that some kind of global quality of life has been achieved. I’d like to take up this theme again, perhaps challenge my own previous argument through a discussion on roads in Karnataka.

Right now I’m watching NDTV as I get ready to leave Bangalore. This evening’s topic is Why is Road Development Off Track? The central question posed by the news program to the audience and interviewees is why roads are not being built as fast as the state government has promised.

Apparently, in 2010, the Karnataka government suggested that the state had the capacity to build 20 kilometers of roads. However, by 2011, it was found that only five kilometers of road are built a day.

Now, I’m coming at this with a lot of bias. Part of which is due to being a pedestrian for the past four days in the forever expanding city of Bangalore. Trying to get from point A to point B has proved nearly impossible. The problem I’ve found is that here, roads seem to sputter and die. Or they become new roads with new names or new roads with no names, or new roads that, suddenly, simply stop being roads without any warning so that everything seems to be in a constant, present state of construction.

But my road angst extends much further than Bangalore as I inevitably associate road development with motor vehicles and thus things like traffic, suburbs, and pollution.

But roads are also what help us live; better roads can mean better access to schools, to hospitals…to clean drinking water.  And, of course, construction employees many people and the idea of greater connectivity often boosts ideas of improved qualities of life.

But without knowing where they are going, whom they are connecting, isn’t it pointless to be asking why a certain number of kilometers are or aren’t being built?

Le me return to this news program I’m watching. I don’t mean to stereotype, but it seems Indians, (at least of the civil service government variety) love, I mean l-o-v-e numbers. I find that the response to any inquiry regarding the progress of a project is met with a series of numbers so that in 2006 it cost this much to build one kilometer of road with cement costing some number and this many people were employed to mix the cement and this many were employed to lay the cement and the total number of roads built was this number and if we compare that to the number of roads built in, say Tamil Nadu in 2007 than we will find a difference of this many kilometers and considering Tamil Nadu is this many square kilometers big and Karnataka is this many square kilometers big than it makes sense that this number fewer of roads was built in 2009 but not in 2010…wait, what were talking about?

This is certainly how the various interviews with various people working in road construction are going so that I think the only thing I’ve caught so far is that 18000 kilometers of road were built from 2010-2011. Again, this apparently works out to roughly five kilometers a day.

“Could 20 kilometers of road be built a day?” The inquisitive newscaster asks Russell Waugh of Leighton Contractors.

“Certainly,” the Aussie-accented Waugh replies. It seems to him there is no reason Karnataka cannot not nor should not be constructing 20 kilometers of road a day.

But why do 20 kilometers of road need to be built a day? Where are these roads being built and where are they going? (Trust me, if there was a telephone number to call in, I’d be dialing it right now).

These questions seem entirely absent from the discussion. Meanwhile, I shudder at the thought of more roads being constructed in Bangalore. I’m imagining that scene in Disney’s Fantasia where Mickey takes the wand without permission and begins multiplying everything so that the buckets of water keep dumping and dumping until the sorcerer’s studio is soon underwater.

It is here that I rethink this question of development. The American Highway Act of 1956 was certainly a fantastic gesture of infrastructure sorcery. The problem is roads cost much more to upkeep than they do to keep. That, my friends, is my abbreviated version of how we got suburban sprawl (I’ve left out many chapters of course). But is it appropriate to ask other countries to take note of this tale of development, development without question, without foresight?

Now there is a commercial break. But the question we are left to muse over during this three minute interlude is whether the inability to acquire land quickly enough is in fact that the greatest barrier to building 20 kilometers of roads a day.

Wait. Acquire what land? From whom?

We return. Mukund Sapre explains that roads are an acceptable reason to acquire land from people, (like farmers), “as long as compensation is given respectfully.”

Praveen Kumar chimes in, calling this “Reasonable rehabilitation.” In his opinion, “it’s not that difficult [to acquire land].”

I’m now not thinking about roads but that forever unanswerable question of what is the value of land? Can anyone ever be reasonably rehabilitated at a fixed cost? What happens to people who don’t have any official land title?

I could give you 101 reasons why road development is off track. But, I’m not sure how long it will take to get to the Bangalore City train station in this kind of traffic and I’ve got a 10:00pm train to catch.

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Comments
One Response to “We’re on the Road to Nowhere”
  1. Administrators of all stripes love numbers. They’re empirical measures, which from a managerial perspective have been taken to equal quality of life. That of course is the fallacy of GDP, which Gini coefficients and the like are supposed correct. What I like about what you’ve been writing lately is how all of your experiences are being brought into play. The reflexivity is also admirable. Look forward to more.

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