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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.

href="">land acquisition bill intended to streamline the process and ensure fairness.

On a recent afternoon in Bhatta-Parsaul, 60-year-old Saukin, a wizened farm laborer, was bathing in a vacant lot near the rutted village road. Shot in the shin bone by police during last year's altercation, he still wears a painful-looking steel brace on his withered leg, screws twisted into his tibia.

Pouring a bucket of water over his head, he propped his injured leg on a lawn chair in an attempt to prevent his bandage from getting soaked.

“I can't work any more, so the village people are supporting me, and my wife and daughters are working,” he said.

After he was shot, the government awarded Saukin with 50,000 rupees (about $1,000) in compensation, he says. But the operation to repair his leg cost double that amount, and the doctor is asking another 80,000 rupees to finish the job. A wealthier villager has floated him a loan, but it will accrue 3 percent in interest every month until Saukin gets back on his feet. And by that time, there may not be many farms left in Bhatta-Parsaul.

Along with more than 100 villages and towns, Patta has already sacrificed acres and acres of farmland to the state government. And though the ensuing residential and commercial developments are projected to create an economic boom, locals like 61-year-old Maumchand, a farmer who was forced to give up his 2.5 acre farm, fear their lives will never be the same.

“Many people will lose everything due to this expressway,” says Maumchand, who was once Saukin's employer.

The successful completion of the toll road could be an important milestone in India's long battle to improve its woefully inadequate transport infrastructure — the key to jumpstarting the country's moribund manufacturing sector and putting millions of people to work. But just as the opening of the highway promises hope for investors and developers keen to cash in on India's massive domestic market and the super cheap labor available outside its major cities, the story of Saukin and other villagers like him illustrates the tremendous challenge involved in transforming a country of farms into a country of factories.

“The big people and the government have taken this land by an emergency clause for industrial purposes, but they're selling it to builders for residential projects,” says another villager, who refuses to give his name, noting that several others who were involved in last year's protests are still behind bars.

“The economic boom will help rich people, not us. We will have to leave this place.”

Villagers say that the government paid land owners 880 rupees (about $16) per square meter in compensation for any land that was acquired for the project, which was arguably a fair price for isolated farm plots. But once those plots were lumped together, and the expressway neared completion, prices skyrocketed to 6200 rupees per square meter for residential property and 22,000 rupees for commercial plots, displaced locals say.

The promise of infrastructure

Across the expressway in Atta Gujran, though, villagers have already built two- and three-story homes with money they received for their farmland. Satellite dishes festoon the rooftops, and nearly every compound has an expensive new car parked out front. Farther down the highway, in the town of Tappal, a group of locals gathered outside a bank, are excited about the promise of new economic opportunities that comes with modern infrastructure.

“This area was totally undeveloped, really rural,” said Rang Lal Attari, a bald retiree dressed in a white kurta pajama and seated on a rope bed by the roadside. “Now some development will come here.”

According to a 2009 report on India's infrastructure problems by the consultancy McKinsey & Co., India then boasted one of the world's largest road networks, but only a quarter of its supposed “national highways” had even two lanes, and nearly 90 percent of India's highways are “structurally inadequate” to support the 11.2 ton per axle that trucks are allowed to carry.

Nothing much has changed in three years. A typical highway journey means plunging through yawning potholes and weaving around bullock carts, not to mention school children, working elephants and the odd farmer chasing a herd of rawboned cattle to market. So it's not surprising that transport delays cost Indian industry an estimated $725 million per year, according to a new report from the Ministry of Road, Transport and Highways.

“Before, traveling from here to New Delhi took six hours one way,” said Neeraj Sharma, a property dealer who has profited from escalating land prices. “Now, it takes four hours roundtrip. Property values have increased by more than 10 times.”

Because of the infrastructure deficit elsewhere, the impact here — and all along the expressway to Agra — could indeed be dramatic, according to experts like Parvesh Minocha, group managing director of Feedback Infrastructure, a consulting firm.

The expressway slashes travel time from New Delhi to Agra — where leather factories and other industries will benefit from the faster connection to one of the country's most lucrative markets. But, more importantly, it passes through one of India's richest agricultural zones and links area towns and villages to the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor — a $90 billion, dedicated freight corridor comprising 24 planned cities.

“Because of the corridor, the growth will probably be far more than it would be for a general road anywhere else,” said Minocha.

“I'm not only depending on the tourist traffic to Agra. That's only going to be a small component. Industry, freight, logistics — the connectivity for the rest of western Uttar Pradesh could actually grow very drastically, and therefore it could have a much bigger impact than one would have imagined even a few years ago.”