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India: the story of a highway

In a country plagued by woefully inadequate infrastructure, the Yamuna Expressway could well transform the economy of the capital region.

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Vehicles arrive at a toll plaza on the Yamuna Expressway, Aug. 12, 2012. The court had expressed serious concern over lack of provision of food as well. The court asked the NALSA (National Legal Service Authority) to contact the Sulabh International to find out whether they could come forward to help the 1,780-odd widows living in four government shelters at Vrindavan. AFP PHOTO/ Prakash SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/GettyImages) (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

PATTA, Uttar Pradesh — This August, India's multibillion dollar Jaypee Group flagged off a sparkling, six-lane expressway.

The new roadway cuts in half the travel time from New Delhi to Agra, the city that is home to India's top tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal.

The company responsible for bringing Formula One racing to India last year, the Jaypee Group has never been short of ambition. Far more than a simple highway, the Yamuna Expressway project — which extends the suburbs of New Delhi deep into Uttar Pradesh — encompasses high-rise condominiums, universities and technical institutes, an exhibition center, a “sports city” of golf courses, cricket grounds and other facilities surrounding the Formula One speedway, as well as a second international airport to serve the capital area (yet to be built).

Moreover, its planners project that the promise of speedy travel will draw multinational firms like Honda, Daewoo, and Samsung — which already have factories in a township outside New Delhi called Greater Noida — deeper into Uttar Pradesh.

“The economic impact is going to be huge in the coming years,” said Sachin Gaur, chief financial officer of Jaypee Infratech, the unit that built the expressway.

“Uttar Pradesh, till now, was not developing as fast as it could. Today, with Agra just an hour-and-a-half away, slowly this entire area between Greater Noida and Agra will work like a satellite city for [the capital region].”

In a country plagued by woefully inadequate infrastructure, the project could well transform the economy of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, and one of its least developed.

But despite the project's powerful potential, it took more than a decade to bring local stakeholders on board, acquire the land for the highway from farmers, and complete construction — illustrating both the challenges and the opportunities behind India's notorious infrastructure deficit.

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First announced by then-Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kumari Mayawati in 2001, the expressway was derailed when her government fell in 2003, resurrected when she regained power in 2007, and only came to fruition shortly after she was again ousted by elections this May. In the early stages, land acquisition proceeded smoothly — accomplished by the government on Jaypee's behalf, using India's laws of eminent domain.

But as the state sought to capitalize on the project by acquiring more farmland for development alongside the highway, the Yamuna Expressway became a flashpoint.

In May 2011, farmers from the village of Bhatta-Parsaul, about 50 miles from New Delhi along the planned highway, kidnapped three officials from the Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation in the area to conduct a land survey. A three-hour gun battle ensued when police moved in to rescue the hostages, and two villagers and two policemen were killed. After a number of farmers were arrested, the protest swelled. Violence continued, and the state deployed as many as 2,000 police to restore order.

Remarkably, the expressway was not derailed — though Jaypee was unfairly tarred for the conflict, which involves real estate acquisitions by the state-owned Yamuna Expressway Industrial Development Authority.

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“Bhatta-Parsaul is probably two to three kilometers from where the expressway was built up,” said Gaur, whose father, Jaiprakash Gaur, is the founder and chairman of the Jaypee Group. “When [the protest and police firing] happened, the entire land acquisition of the expressway was over two years before that. Just because the area was near the Yamuna Expressway, people linked it with Jaypee.”

Even today, farmers continue to demand a renegotiation of land prices, toll-free travel on the expressway, the construction of new underpasses to make it easier to pass from one village to another, and on and on.

The struggle for land

Land acquisition remains the largest hurdle to industrial development in densely populated India.

Over the past decade, opposition has mounted to government drives to create special economic zones for industry — which critics say netted billions of dollars for politicians and business tycoons at the expense of small farmers. But despite a bloody conflict in Nandigram and Singur, West Bengal — which was the catalyst for the end of the 30-year reign of the Communist Party of India-Marxist in that state — the government has yet to push through a