India's Highway
India's Golden Quadrilateral

Photograph by Ed Kashi National Geographic October 2008

In the 1990s India's prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee famously said, "Our roads don't have a few potholes. Our potholes have a few roads." Since then, India's highways have come a long way.

Unveiled a decade ago, the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) is part of a $30-billion-plus National Highways Authority of India project. Construction officially began in 2000, and since then, the GQ has grown to 3,633 miles (5,846 kilometers) of highway that link four of the country's major cities—Delhi, Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai (Bombay), and Chennai—in the shape of a diamond.

Though the GQ makes up less than 2 percent of India's road network, it carries about 40 percent of the country's traffic and accounts for one-third of its traffic fatalities. Nevertheless, according to Sanjay Agrawal of the National Highways Authority, the "GQ can be considered as the best stretch among national highways"—safer than the two-lane alternatives.

Engineers hope to eventually have an automatic toll system as well as road sensors that, if the ground ruptures, will immediately alert maintenance crews to the need for repairs. That would surely reassure drivers, many of whom ask Hindu priests to bless their vehicles and motor scooters before hitting the open road.

But reaction to the road construction has been mixed. Many rural towns have been cut in half by the new highways, and pedestrians crossing the road risk injury and cause accidents. Moreover, auto rickshaws, sacred cows, and other animal traffic, including holy men riding elephants en route to temple pilgrimages, have the right of way on the GQ.

The danger doesn't end there. To save gas, many people drive slower than the posted 50-mile-an-hour speed limit. Mobs often form after accidents and threaten the offending drivers. And truckers often stay awake by drinking doda, a tealike mixture of opium and betelnut that may keep them awake but also impairs their judgment.

Belt, Don. "Fast Lane to the Future." National Geographic (October 2008), 72-99.

National Highways Authority of India.

Waldman, Amy. "Mile by Mile, India Paves a Smoother Road to Its Future." New York Times, December 4, 2005.

India's Economy and Special Economic Zones

In India more than a billion people live in an area one-third the size of the United States, and though most Indians still use the railways as their main transportation system, that's changing. India's impressive economic growth rate of 9 percent a year is second only to China's, among comparable markets. Indians bought 1.5 million passenger vehicles over the past year, and car sales are projected to double by 2015. With Tata Motors hoping to produce the relatively affordable $2,500 Nano car, car ownership may become a viable option for more middle-class Indians.

In the past decade, carmakers like South Korea's Hyundai have built more and more factories in India under the government's new economic incentive plan. Wireless telephone networks that follow the path of India's highways have also grown, enabling farmers to cut out a middleman as they track their harvest sales.

The Indian government has also promoted business by developing Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which provide new infrastructure and a tax holiday to foreign companies that make products for export, often using Indian workers. SEZs generate more than $15 billion in annual exports and provide jobs for a half million Indian workers. "Each state has the prerogative to articulate a labor policy for the SEZs," says Dennis Taraporewala, vice president of business development at Navi Mumbai SEZ Ltd., a group seeking to expand global and domestic business in the state of Maharashtra.

But the acquisition of land for the SEZs has caused friction. Given that India has such a large population, land has always been a highly disputed and hard-won commodity. And now the livelihood of farmers displaced by the GQ is gathering headlines, as the farmers and police clash, sometimes violently.

Conflict started in West Bengal after the state government appropriated nearly a thousand acres of land in Singur, near the GQ, for a Tata Motors factory. Anuradha Talwar, a spokesperson for the West Bengal Agricultural Workers Union, says farmers are contesting the appropriation of 442 of those acres and will continue to fight the government in the courts. Under an 1894 law, West Bengal can claim it had the right to acquire the acreage, and it maintains that most of the farmers willingly vacated their land for just compensation. The court case is ongoing. In August, protests by the farmers halted work, at least temporarily, at the Singur factory, and Tata Motors is now considering moving its Nano production elsewhere.

Guha, Ramachandra. India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy. HarperCollins, 2007.

Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life. Viking Penguin, 1997.

Other Resources
India's Automotive Mission Plan.

Growth of Automobiles in India and China.

Last updated: September 3, 2008