September 6, 2000


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One for the road

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Sajid Bhombal

Terming the national highway development project ambitious, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said a four-lane golden quadrilateral connecting New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, will be ready by 2003. The north-south and east-west corridors will be ready by 2007, he said.
- India Today, on the prime minister's Independence Day speech.

Every time I drive from Rayong, an industrial town on the east coast of Thailand, to Bangkok international airport, I envy the motorways. Five years back, when I first visited Thailand, it took three hours 15 minutes to reach Rayong. Today, the distance takes two hours 15 minutes.

There are three routes to choose from; two are 'toll paid', while one is built above an eight-lane highway.

These motorways are in addition to the national highway (six lanes up to half the distance and eight lanes further down), which itself are far better than our so-called highways.

And that's a country which, 25 years ago, was behind us economically. Today, the whole of south-east Asia is perhaps 25 years ahead, especially in terms of infrastructure.

The difference between our government's approach to infrastructure and that of governments in this region is visible.

The crisis of 1997, referred as the Asian Meltdown, started in Thailand. The economy was down and there was a lack of confidence. But, the Thai government did not let infrastructure suffer.

Motorways joining eastern coastal towns to Bangkok were built after 1997. The government always focused on providing infrastructure. It was simple logic: the economy was bound to bounce back and infrastructure was essential for it to flourish. When investor confidence returns, infrastructure will make Thailand more attractive. That was the logic with which the government justified its focus on infrastructure development during the days of the economic slowdown.

The motorways, even though I enjoyed driving on them, left me envious. Each time I drove, one thing always came to mind. When can I drive like this in my beautiful Konkan? The scenic Konkan, a pleasure for the eyes, is always missed, as one has to concentrate on potholes and erratic traffic.

I work in Rayong, the petrochemical hub of Thailand. Five years back, there was one road leading to the industrial estate. Today, there are six routes I can take to the industrial estate from downtown. Three of them are six-lane roads.

In India, my first assignment as an engineer was at Hazira near Surat. At Hazira, there are companies such as Reliance, Kribhco, NTPC, ONGC, L&T and Essar. And the only road from Surat to Hazira was best described by my then boss as 'a little bit of road between potholes'. We were talking about a road from a city like Surat to an industrial area that had big-name companies. This was in 1993. I haven't been to Hazira since, but my friend tells me that even though Surat has transformed dramatically; the road to Hazira is no different from what it was in 1993.

One has to only drive along the Thane-Belapur road to understand how pathetic our roads are. We can almost see the who's who of Indian industry nameplates near the road, but the road is still terrible. Flyovers may have changed things a bit, but we are still not modern.

This is in total contrast to what happens in south-east Asia, where infrastructure is set up by the government to supplement industrial growth.

When I first visited Malaysia in 1998, we landed at the newly-opened Kuala Lumpur international airport. A beautiful airport, aesthetically and functionally. While on our way to town, my American boss and I were talking about the airport. Our conclusion was that it was no doubt a beauty, but it was too big for the traffic and extravagant.

Wisdom, they say, comes from the most unexpected quarters. The ethnic Chinese taxi driver intervened. Pointing to the busy motorway, he said, ''Twenty years back, when the motorway was built, everybody thought the same. Today, people find the motorway congested.'' How true!

Even the domestic airport from where I took an onward flight and which was an international airport just three months earlier was far better than the Bombay or Delhi airport. The only change I can see at Bombay airport in the five years I have been away is a change in name. Otherwise I find the airport, both the building and service, going from bad to worse each year. The commercial capital of India definitely deserves a better, a much better airport.

When will our leaders realise the logic, which even a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur is aware of, that in this modern world, we need to plan for the future?

Education is vital for any country. How much importance does our government give to education? Contrast this with Thailand.

Recently, during Euro 2000, the sports pages of Thai newspapers (local language and English) were full of Euro 2000 reports. The front pages had unusual headlines almost throughout the tournament. They were full of education ministry replies, advice and action on 'falling attendance' at schools due to the late night live coverage of matches.

The education ministry was at least seen to be acting to ensure that students do not bunk classes. It was not only 'concerns' floated in newspapers. The ministry came up with suggestions to parents and schools on what could be done to avoid students bunking, including one to make it compulsory for all Bangkok schools to record matches and show the videos during lunch breaks. All this was news on the front pages of national newspapers.

Have we seen any education minister in our country concerned about 'falling attendance' during World Cup cricket matches? Forget our newspaper front pages, even inside pages do not give importance to such vital issues.

I am in a mood to celebrate my country's achievements in nuclear bombs, information technology and beauty pageants. But my celebration comes with a rider. I, like millions of Indians, am also aware about reality that when it comes to basics like roads and education, we have been left far behind in this fast developing world.

Columnist Tavleen Singh once wrote: If we have one prime minister who gives us roads, nothing else, but modern roads, in his five-year term, he can go down in history as the best PM till date.

I agree. Here we have a prime minister who calls a four-lane highway connecting major metros, which is a basic necessity and which should have been built 20, 25 or n years back, as an 'ambitious project'.

Well, we definitely need leaders with higher, much higher, ambition.

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