We were to travel by train to Nagpur to take the Indigo flight from there for Kolkata. But the train got cancelled because of the unprecedented rains and floods in Tamil Nadu, especially Chennai where all the rakes were held up. With no other available alternative we had to hire a taxi to travel by road.
Half the journey was pretty miserable, travelling as we were on an apology of a highway. In two decades, one each of Digvijay Singh and Shivraj Singh Chauhan, this trunk route between South and the North that passes through the state of Madhya Pradesh (Central Province of the country) could not be made travel-worthy and respectable enough for living up to its venerable title of National Highway 69. It was one of the wretchedest roads that I ever happened to travel on. It seemed to be competing with the so-called highways of Assam, Manipur and Mizoram that I travelled on more than two decades ago. Of course the one that took me into the town of Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, walked away with the cake. While travelling on the Mongoldoi and Goalpara stretches in Assam one wondered how the Army managed to mobilize its heavy equipment in the 1962 war through these roads which must have been worse at that time.
But then, this was in the North-East which was remote and almost inaccessible fifty years ago. This one in central India had no reason to be so neglected connecting as it did the North of the country with the South. Metalled only in name, the patchwork repairs apparently carried out from time to time made it worse. Bouncy and hitting the spine where it hurt, even a Tata’s Indigo sedan could not absorb the shocks. A distance of 200 kms or so up to Betul, a district town the Satpura Ranges, took as many as 4 tiring and painful hours.
With such rotten roads the state could never have progressed and, no wonder, it has remained backward, though the current chief minister takes pains to project it as a progressive state. If I recall, it was Mao tse Tung who had said that if one wanted prosperity, one had to build roads. The US, too, set upon building roads and highways during the Great Depression of the 1930s to enhance the shrinking investments even if it was on behalf of the public. The network of national and state highways built during those few years took the economy on a flight. The country’s prosperity was largely contributed by the investments that were made on infrastructure during the Depression.
But there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. Mercifully, our travail ended a little before Betul situated as a new spanking highway took off before the road entered the town. The new highway not only bypassed Betul, it avoided all small towns and villages on the way which slow down the traffic due to people using the road as an outer courtyard of their house. It, nonetheless, provided exits for and accesses from these settlements. The four lanes of smooth level concrete with a pretty wide central verge with saplings in the process of growing up ran unhindered very much unlike an Indian highway with all its unevenness, pothole, ditches and the clutter. It ran right up to Nagpur, barring a few exceptions where, perhaps, the right alignment could not be found or, maybe, on account o some legal issues. The best part was up to Katol with excellent signage and directions for the commuters. For buses serving the towns and villages on the way there were “bus bays” with diminutive bus stops in each with seats and shelter for the passengers.
Many may have used the completed national highways or travelled over the Yamuna Expressway on which a plane is supposed to have landed recently but this was my first exposure to our new-age national highways which are and, hopefully likely to be like any highway abroad in industrialized and advanced countries. What were missing, however, were the restrooms and arrangements for rest and recreation. Perhaps, these too will come by and by.
Nonetheless, it was a very pleasant experience to drive through those one hundred odd miles. Later while travelling to Pench Tiger Reserve of Madhya Pradesh we drove over another lovely highway with teak forests on both sides but it is yet to be brought to the level of the Betul-Nagpur highway.
As far as the Minister Nitin Gadkari's part of the work is concerned on the Betul-Nagpur highway, it is excellent. Some concerns about management of traffic, however, still remain. While an occasional bullock cart is still seen on the highway, cattle also stray into it obstructing the fast and even flow of traffic. Then there is the habit of our two-wheeler riders to take the wrong carriageways enhancing the hazards for the driving public
The foremost problem, however, is the proclivity of drivers, especially of trucks and buses, to take to the fast lane and stick to it for all they are worth. No amount of honking ever makes them yield the fast lane to faster vehicles. Sometimes, therefore, one wonders whether it is now time to switch to the American way of driving, reversing the current traffic rules which are not observed anyway.
One supposes that till the time the system of "highway patrol" is established travellers on our highways may have to put up with this nuisance. Our truck and bus drivers are all probably licensed and yet they generally believe that the lanes on the extreme right are meant for heavy, beefed-up vehicles, that is, for the vehicles they drive. Over the last sixty years or so that I have had the good fortune to travel off and on on highways no government transport authority or traffic police seem to have been able to disabuse their minds of their utterly wrong belief that could and, perhaps, should have brought them to grief.