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Last Updated: Monday, 26 May, 2003, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
India en route for grand highways
By Jyotsna Singh
BBC correspondent in Delhi

Smooth, pristine roads; traffic flowing at over 100km/h; emergency medical teams on standby for accidents.

The four-lane highway between Delhi and Jaipur
The first phase is almost complete
It is not an image many would associate with the Indian road network.

But India is changing at last.

The country is witnessing one of the world's largest road building projects, worth more than $12bn.

With roads up to six lanes wide covering nearly 14,000 kilometres (8,750 miles), Indian officials say the country is finally gearing up to take on its Asian economic rival, China.

In October 1998 Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee promised the people of India world-class roads connecting the whole country.

Dream project

An extra rupee on every litre of petrol or diesel was levied to fund the project.

The scheme, which is regarded as Mr Vajpayee's dream, has also received the backing of the World Bank and other financial institutions.

He suggested I use the emergency call box - who could think of anything like that in this country?
Delhi lawyer Awadh Kaushik

Often, such huge projects in India are ill-conceived. They lack planning, meet bureaucratic hurdles and invariably result in time and cost overruns.

Nearly five years later, 80% of the first phase of the project has been completed, say officials.

It connects India's four big cities - Calcutta, Madras, Delhi and Bombay, also known as Mumbai.

Work on the second phase connecting Srinagar in the north to Kanyakumari in the south and Silchar in the east to Saurashtra in the west is due to begin shortly.

The deadline for completing the whole project is 2007.

But officials say the speed at which the project is progressing and the professionalism of those involved could mean it is completed ahead of schedule.

India's Surface Transport Minister BC Khanduri told the BBC he has adopted unusual methods to ensure the project runs to schedule.

"I brought the completion date forward with a view to activate and energise. I told the contractors to complete the first phase by 2003. I knew it was difficult," he says.

"We started giving bonuses. For completing the project one month ahead of schedule we would give 1% bonus and a months' delay could result in a 1.5% penalty."


But Mr Khanduri, a retired army general who studied engineering, is being accused of setting unrealistic targets in view of coming general elections.

People will get more facilities - more employment
Shravan Singh

The project has been delayed due to strong resistance in some parts of Maharashtra state, where tribal groups are angry at efforts to acquire their land.

In states such as Tamil Nadu and Orissa the pace of the project has been particularly sluggish.

But Mr Khanduri says his approach has helped change the stereotypical assumption that nothing happens on time in India.

Officials say this is the first time a road project of this magnitude has been undertaken since Muslim emperor Shershah Suri built the famous Grand Truck road in the 16th century.

The road ran from Sonargaon in Bengal to Peshawar in the North-Western Frontier (now in Pakistan).

Smart roads

Although nearly 75% of the work is being done by Indians, companies from China, Russia, Malaysia and South Africa are also participating.

Anil Bordia of the National Highway Authority of India says the considerable interest being shown by the private sector in the project is due to three major factors.

"Ensured revenue repayment, fair bidding and speedy execution."

Caller at an emergency phone box on a new highway
Drivers have access to emergency phone boxes
Nearly 250,000 labourers have been working every day since the project started three years ago and attention has been paid to the minutest detail.

Most of the four lane sections avoid the problem of glaring lights from oncoming traffic by raising the road height on one side of the carriageway.

A special "Intelligent Traffic Management System" has been installed on the Delhi-Jaipur Highway (NH-8).

It provides information on weather and traffic flow and helps reduce traffic congestion, environmental degradation, and checks for stress-related accidents.

Emergency call boxes fitted at various points on the stretch help drivers with information about where they can buy fuel, or give them directions to the nearest hospital.

Happy travellers

Awadh Kaushik, a Delhi lawyer, is astonished by what he has seen.

He was returning from Jaipur to Delhi when his bus left without him after a tea break.

"I was desperate to make sure that my luggage was safe so I went to the nearest police station," he told the BBC. "I got the usual answer that nothing could be done until it reached Delhi.

National Traffic Management centre
The network is monitored by state-of-the-art technology
"So I took a taxi and when the driver heard my story, he suggested I use the emergency call box.

"The message was conveyed to the bus driver by the traffic police. Who could think of anything like that in this country?"

Sunil Lulla, an engineer, is equally impressed.

He said: "It used to take up to seven hours to cover a distance of 250 kilometres from Jaipur to Delhi, now it takes less than five hours even during peak hours."

Data prepared by highway officials shows accidents have also come down by nearly 20%.

Better, wider roads have raised expectations among the rural population, too, and among those living close to the highways.

"As the city progresses there will be more factories. People will get more facilities - more employment," said Shravan Singh, a resident of of Dehmai village in Rajsthan's Behror district.

But the new technology is also proving so tempting to some that they cannot keep their hands off it.

So much so, in fact, that the authorities are having to think up ways to stop the electronic gadgets from being vandalised or stolen.

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