For a decade, Jaipur has been celebrated for its literary festival, the JLF sprawling over the rooms and grounds of Diggy Palace, which has become one of the major cultural events in the literary and creative world.

For decades, one has been hearing about how the highways of India are the country’s economic lifeline, transporting tens of thousands of tons of freight and millions of passengers every day.  The recently presented Budget also gave support to this infrastructure programme. 

But what is the toll on the economy if major highway segments are incomplete, function poorly, are badly built and swarm with haphazard traffic?

The Jaipur-Delhi highway is a prime example of this. This is the route to one of the best-known tourist destinations not just in India but across the world. Rajasthan sees more tourist footfalls than several states put together. But if our experience the other day is anything to go by, then the highway is a terrible example of better infrastructure and tourist-friendly conditions, not to speak of extortion and poor maintenance.

It started a couple of hours after leaving the Pink City and the packed JLF. We thought we were doing the smart thing by driving back to Delhi but nothing prepared us for the nightmarish stretch near Paota, not far from Kotputli town, where we hit what can be only described as one of the most harrowing traffic jams we have ever experienced. There was no warning or visible reason. Lines of mammoth trucks, cars and other three wheelers and two wheelers stretched for kilometers, with six lanes of near stationary traffic—four on the main highway and at least two on the small service lane. Small cars competed with monster 24-tire heavily laden trucks, looming over them as a swirling dust storm seemed to obliterate the sky. During the dense traffic at Pawta, there was also another spectacle—a lone Rajasthan traffic cop waving a solitary stick at traffic. With one wave of his wand, he brought our noisy, staggering flow to a halt. Peering through the haze, we saw a massive excavator charging diagonally across the road. Not to left out of the action, a camel, with driver and cart, was waved across to the other side.  Having thus established parity, the policeman moved our gargantuan stream on.

A number of foreigners in other cars, including one with United Nations number plates, wore stunned looks or sat with patient looks prepared to wait this out.

The dust meant that we couldn’t open the windows and switching on the air conditioning meant getting frozen—it was January-end.

This is a part of the National Highway 8, supposedly the busiest highway in India and possibly among the busiest in the world, stretching from Bombay through Ahmedabad and Jaipur to Delhi.  On the internet, the National Highway of India says this is the first segment of its ambitious Golden Trilateral highway to be completed.  But this description is inaccurate.

When you’re not stuck on the Jaipur expressway, you’re lining up at ugly, poorly maintained toll booths which look as if they’ve been lathered in grease and paan spit. The approaches are layered with high rumble strips which are clearly built for trucks, not cars.

Compare these booths with their counterparts in any other part of South East Asia; those are sparking spaces, with smart, courteous operators in neat uniforms and ready smiles.

The national highways are the property of the Government of India, designed, maintained, and developed by the NHAI, a wing of the Ministry of Surface Transport. On the highway, in the dust haze, we came across a number of crossroads where scooters, motorcyclists, pedestrians, trucks and cars, had stopped. They had no traffic lights. They had been waiting for an opening in the highway swarm when they would literally dash across, risking life and limb.

The toll booths collect fares of about Rs 300 at three places but this income is not reflected either in the quality of the toll booths, the roads or the management of traffic. But the journey wasn’t over yet—at Neemrana, the cars were zipping past the toll booths. Trucks were stopping to pay toll. But as we followed the car trail, a set of yellow painted steel barricades appeared and burly men lumbered up and asked about parchi. But there’s none because no one stopped us to collect it, the driver said. Well, you have to pay, said one burly man: Rs 125. The driver paid Rs 100 saying he didn’t have change. The man waved for the barrier to be moved aside. The highway kept narrowing and widening at whim for long stretches before hitting a uniform four lane as we approached Gurugram. Another major issue: since the monster trucks stick to either middle or right lanes and rarely to the slow lane which is the one on the extreme left, we were forced to play a dangerous game of weaving in and out of lanes at high speed.  It was more like a scene out of a bad version of Fast and Furious! And be careful of overtaking from the left, you’ll find massive trucks parked without lights, inviting a crash. There is little point in remaining angry about these situations. Simple steps can improve conditions. Here are two: (1) Better road and traffic management, starting with good signage warning, well ahead, of slow or heavy traffic ahead and narrowing of the road. Motorists and commuters need to be prepared. The signage could counsel patience and apologise for the inconvenience (nay hardship). The problems arising from a person suffering from claustrophobia or a serious ailment or even a bout of diarrhoea do not bear contemplation, and (2) traffic monitors and highway patrols.

We would urge Mr Nitin Gadkari, a minister who is regarded as among the “do-ers” in the Cabinet, to travel on this highway unannounced to assess conditions. The Jaipur-Delhi highway is supposed to be a great, high-speed. It took seven hours to cover 264 km at an average speed of less than 40 km per hour. Others have taken longer. It is the toll of road travel, not the tolls, which take a toll. 

Sanjoy Hazarika’s new book, Strangers no More, New Narratives from India’s North-east, has just been published by Aleph. He is International Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Preeti Gill is a literary agent, who develops creative spaces and has curated a list of some of the best authors from the Northeast.

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