Page last updated at 22:50 GMT, Thursday, 22 April 2010 23:50 UK

India's new highway to heaven

By Brajesh Upadhyay
BBC News, Varanasi

Sakaldip Rai travelled for more than seven hours on top of a bus in searing heat, all alone. This was one long journey before his last.

Road junction
India's new road building programme is changing the lives of many

The 80-year-old had wanted to be cremated in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi after his death.

As the flames gorged on him, his family and friends watched with pride and a sense of fulfilment.

Mr Rai's grandson says that thanks to the new highway network, his grandfather's wish was fulfilled without any hassle.

"Varanasi has always been significant for Hindus. Now because of these highways the connectivity is so much better," he says. "Earlier there used to be knee-deep potholes."

For centuries, Hindus have been coming to Varanasi to cremate their dead. They believe it is the road to heaven.

And as the roads connecting this city with the rest of the country get better, wider and faster, more and more Hindus are now seeking this route to the other world.

For those involved in the rituals of the dead, business is booming.

There's a long queue of bodies waiting to be washed, shaved and draped in new clothes before being assigned to flames - and each ritual translates into more money for local vendors.

"The numbers have risen by 50%," says Faujdar Prasad Sharma, who helps with these rituals at Manikarnika Ghat by the river Ganges.

"People come from far off areas - and it's all because of better means to reach this city."

Fruitful route

It was the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government in 1998 that came up with the ambitious project to link the four main cities of India through a network of nearly 6,000km of four-lane highways.

As it nears completion, cities like Varanasi that fall on the way have begun to reap the benefits.

State highway near Kolkata
As India embarks on the astounding task of building 20km of new roads every day from June, BBC Hindi has been on a journey across India to find out how this ambitious construction project may change the nation.

The Highway Hindustan team covered 2,500km, travelling along India's Golden Quadrilateral highway network which connects Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

Read their news story on how rapid improvement in India's pot-holed roads is crucial to its development.

The roads once marked by huge potholes and congestion now make a mark on the day-to-day lives of the masses and present unique opportunities.

On the outskirts of Varanasi a wholesale vegetable market, Raja Talab sits almost on the highway's hard shoulder.

Farmers from nearby villages carrying fresh vegetables on bicycles, rickshaws and rickety tractors make a beeline for waiting trucks and traders.

Dev Nath Singh, a 48-year-old farmer, grows chillies on a small patch of land in a village about 15km from Varanasi.

It takes him an hour to reach this market. Yet he prefers to come here every morning, as the returns are much better compared to his village.

"Not many buyers come to the village and even if a few do come, it's difficult to trust them," he says. "What if they run away with our money?"

The highway now gives them access to better and bigger markets. He says his produce now makes it to distant cities and even a few neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh.

Highways minister Kamal Nath has noted 40% of India's fruits and vegetables rot before reaching the market because of bad roads.

He says highways have the potential to contribute around 1.5% to 2% of gross domestic product.

And this is quite visible when the income growth in rural areas fuels the domestic market for consumer goods.

New opportunities

Prabha Shanker Patel grows cabbages and carrots on his farm. Improved market access has helped his earnings grow several times over.

"I don't have all the comforts of life, but now at least I have a television, a music player and I send my two sons and three daughters to good schools," he says.

Vegetable market outside Varanasi
Vegetable sellers have new opportunities thanks to the highway

One of his sons studies at a polytechnic institute that may land him a nice city job.

A World Bank study has assessed that every single rupee invested in the highways sector yields seven rupees in economic value.

New toll booths, gas service stations and motels sprouting along the highways all present employment opportunities for locals.

In fact, there are some who have turned the bureaucratic bottlenecks at the toll booths into an opportunity.

Until a few years back, Omar Sharief ran a telephone booth near the national highway connecting the western Indian states of Karnataka and Maharashtra.

As the highway was widened, a toll booth also came up. This meant more paperwork for truckers and other commercial vehicles.

Quick to spot an opportunity, Mr Sharief installed a fax machine, a photocopier and now a laptop with an internet connection.

"The truckers rarely have all the paperwork. Now they call their head offices and get those faxed to me," he says.

He also has a Gmail address advertised on the shop, where companies can mail scanned copies and he just has to print them out.

No free ride

It can be tempting to compare India with the history of the US, where the interstate network galvanised the post-war economy.

But it could be too early for that.

There is no doubt these roads present opportunities like never before. But the fact is, they also travel through an India where economic growth still sounds like jargon to most and happy stories are still few and rare.

Farmers often complain of being robbed of fertile lands for road construction without suitable compensation. Fulfilling basic needs is still a daily struggle for most.

The government aspires to a double-digit annual rate of economic growth and is on a road-building spree to reach its destination.

To ensure these roads travel really far, they will have to take the masses along - not as passengers, but as shareholders.

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