Published: October 2008
Fast Lane to the Future
A new superhighway linking its four major cities is bringing old and new India into jarring proximity.
By Don Belt
National Geographic Staff

India's new national highway, part crushed rock and asphalt, part yellow brick road, swings through Bangalore as it races across southern India bearing the turbocharged hopes of a billion people from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. In downtown Bangalore the wheels roll to a stop, briefly, beside an ornate, 50-foot-high Hindu temple where every night a cheerful little man in horn-rimmed glasses named R. L. Deekshith, the temple priest, delivers the Hindu equivalent of curbside service. His specialty is the ritual called a puja, in which he spreads the munificence of the god Lord Ganesh upon a parade of newly purchased vehicles—cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, and auto rickshaws, along with the occasional bicycle or bullock cart—whose owners wouldn't think of hitting the road without the blessings of a happy, four-armed god with the head of an elephant who brings prosperity and good fortune, particularly to machines and those setting out on something new.

Menaka Shekaran, a 23-year-old accountant for a company that imports exercise equipment, is waiting to have Mr. Deekshith conduct a puja over her silver motor scooter, which she just purchased this afternoon. Bright-eyed and slender, Menaka is dressed in the fashion one sees on thousands of young Indian women on motorcycles—designer jeans, brightly colored tunic, black heels, and a white scarf over her hair, wrapped to cover her nose and mouth.

As the priest works his way down a long line of vehicles, Menaka's older brother Dhana lights a coconut, circling the motor scooter three times with the smoking husk before smashing it to bits on the pavement in front of the scooter. He places a lemon under the front tire, which Menaka will try to crush when she rolls forward, a most auspicious beginning.

"Do you have a driver's license?" I ask her.

"No, sir, no," she giggles. At that moment Mr. Deekshith appears and drapes a garland of yellow flowers over the scooter's handlebars. He sprinkles holy water from the shrine of Lord Ganesh over the bike while reciting a mantra from the Hindu Vedas, and finishes by flicking droplets of red kumkum, an extract of turmeric, over the front of the scooter and dabbing a bit onto Menaka's forehead.

In thanks, Menaka hands him a gift bag of bananas and turmeric powder. Then she starts the ignition and guns the engine. She seems briefly baffled by the controls (Which one, again, is the throttle? Which one is the brake?) and struggles to keep the bike upright once she's pushed it forward off the kickstand, crushing the lemon to raucous cheers from Dhana and other onlookers. An auspicious beginning, but it looks as if she might keel over sideways into the traffic rushing by a few feet away. Alarmed, I grab hold of a handlebar.

"Do you have a helmet?" I shout over the sputtering engine. She shakes her head, grinning.

"Do you know how to drive?"

"No, sir, not really," she shouts back merrily, "but I'm planning to learn!"

With that, she jerks forward, peeling rubber as Dhana races alongside and nearly gets clipped by a passing car. She accelerates and plunges into the madness of evening rush hour in Bangalore with only Lord Ganesh to help her. As she passes under distant streetlights, I can just make out the top of her head bobbing along in the seething current of 21st-century India, one more swirling pinpoint in a moving river of light.

The road under Menaka's wheels is one stretch of the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ), the brand-new, 3,633-mile expressway linking the country's major population centers of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata. It is part of the largest and most ambitious public infrastructure project in the country's history, one with a social engineering goal at its heart: Much as the U.S. interstate highway system mobilized American society and grooved the postwar economy, India hopes the Golden Quadrilateral will push the country's economic engine into overdrive—bringing the benefits of growth in its booming metropolises out to its impoverished villages, where more than half the population lives.

Announced in 1998 by then Prime Minister Atal B. Vajpayee, who is credited with giving the project its grandiose name, the Golden Quadrilateral is exceeded in scale only by the national railway system built by the British in the 1850s. For decades after its 1947 independence, India practiced a kind of South Asian socialism in keeping with the idealism of its founders, Gandhi and Nehru, and its economy eventually stalled. In the 1990s the country began opening its markets to foreign investment, led by a pro-growth government and staffed by an army of young go-getters who speak excellent English and work for a fraction of the wages paid in the West. Yet India's leaders realized their decrepit highways could hobble the country in its race toward modernization. "Our roads don't have a few potholes," Prime Minister Vajpayee complained to aides in the mid-1990s. "Our potholes have a few roads."

Ten years after Vajpayee's announcement, the GQ is among the most elaborately conceived highway systems in the world, a masterpiece of high-tech ingenuity that is, in many ways, a calling card for India in the 21st century. Seen on a 48-inch flat-screen computer monitor at highway administration headquarters in Delhi, the GQ seems as beautiful as a space capsule. Its designers describe it as an "elegant collection of data points," or a gleaming, "state-of-the-art machine," a technologically advanced conveyor belt moving goods and people around India with seamless precision.

It's easy to be swept up in their enthusiasm for a system so technologically advanced that one day, any rupture in the pavement could be detected by sensors and maintenance crews dispatched; where tolls would be computerized and instantly tabulated against long-term projections; where accidents trigger an instantaneous response from nearby emergency teams. And there is no doubt that the highway and the development it has generated have quickened the pulse of the nation, boosted traffic volume, and brought millions of workers pouring into medium-size and large cities from the countryside. Yet the GQ has also brought old and new India into jarring proximity, challenging the moral and cultural underpinnings of a nation founded on Gandhian principles of austerity, brotherhood, and spirituality. It's sharpened India's appetite for material possessions—especially cars—and many Indians, especially those over 30, have a hard time recognizing the India they see advertised on television and billboards, which comes in a wide choice of designer colors and does zero to sixty in under ten seconds.

"I see the GQ as a metaphor for modern India, speeding along today at a hundred miles an hour," says historian Ramachandra Guha, author of India After Gandhi. "Imagine we stop at a traffic light and roll down the window. There's a path next to the highway, and a little old guy riding past on a bicycle. As we wait impatiently for the light to change, he calls to us to watch out, slow down, don't be so reckless and single-minded in our pursuit of growth and affluence and material goods. Well, that chap on the bicycle is Gandhi. He's our conscience, and even with all that's changed in India, he cannot be ignored."

Seen through the windshield of Rakesh Kumar's truck, the Golden Quadrilateral is a shadow play on asphalt lit by bouncing beams of light, a tedious slab of man-made rock animated by high-beam creatures that jump out from shadows along the road and vanish the instant you see them: the side of a cow, a mound of hay, the corpse of a dog, a ghost on a bicycle. It's 3:30 in the morning, and Rakesh and his 19-year-old nephew Sanjay are chewing high-octane masala tobacco—which keeps them awake by burning their gums—scratching bedbug bites, and listening to screechy Bollywood love songs that Rakesh plays over tinny speakers loud enough to wake the dead. "TRUCK DRIVING MUSIC!" he yells over the sound of the engine, which is roaring like a 747 though the truck is barely doing 30.

Even at that speed, he's passing other trucks laboring along in the slow lane, and Sanjay's job is to signal Rakesh with loud slaps on the door frame when they've cleared the passed truck. They're 250 miles north of Mumbai in the state of Gujarat, hauling nine tons of candle wax, fabric dyes, and electrical supplies to the factories of Delhi. They've already blown two tires tonight—Rakesh stopped at a roadside tire stand and rousted the mechanic out of bed to patch them—and now he's racing to reach a checkpoint by 4 a.m., when he's scheduled to meet a friend of his boss's. This man will "guide" them through the checkpoint at the Rajasthan state line, he says, since the truck is overloaded.

In spite of the 50-mile-an-hour speed limit on the GQ, Rakesh usually drives 40 miles an hour or slower to save fuel; the owner gives him a reasonable allowance for expenses, and Rakesh is free to pocket any money he doesn't spend. If all goes well, he can roughly double the salary he's paid for a trip like this, which isn't much. The Indian economy may be on fire, but for a man like Rakesh, with a wife and four kids to support, every rupee counts. When I visited his home on a dusty side street in Ahmadabad, all four kids—two boys and two girls ranging in age from three to 18—proudly demonstrated their contribution to the family finances, retooling brushes on the living room floor for a local textile manufacturer. "In this family, if you don't work, you don't eat," said Rakesh.

A tough, funny, straight-talking man of 42, Rakesh is built like a former boxer—right down to the punched-in nose—but you'd be wrong if you mistook his machismo for recklessness. This is a guy who's been driving trucks professionally for 22 years. He values his reputation as a safe and sober driver. "Of the drivers on the highway tonight, I'd bet that 90 percent are high on something," he says—hashish, liquor, or doda, a tealike mixture of opium and betel nut that many drivers use to stay alert, but which also clouds their judgment. Still, he prefers driving at night, when it's cool and the GQ is freer of the human and animal traffic that can slow a driver down or cause an accident. It's not unusual, on a six-lane superhighway, to find oxcarts, water buffalo, motorcycles, and the occasional line of trucks and cars coming straight at you, in your lane, driving the wrong way because it's shorter or easier or perhaps because they're confused. Goats graze the median strip, and traffic is often held up by sacred cows, the only users of the highway that seem oblivious to the danger flying around like shrapnel.

Towns cut in half by the highway are especially dangerous, since crowds of pedestrians cross in the face of oncoming traffic, which almost never breaks speed voluntarily. In some of these towns, congestion is so bad that the GQ comes to a standstill, and the fundamental laws of Indian traffic, which resemble those governing swarms of bees, take hold. To cross a busy intersection is to catch a glimpse of the Indian character: enterprising, creative, pushy, energetic, relentless, and surprisingly good-natured. As you wait to cross, you're aware of a constant push around your edges, a jockeying for position that seeks to flow past you on the way to the other side. There's nothing hostile about it; it's just that standing still is not an option.

Shortly before reaching the toll plazas at Udaipur, Rakesh decides to leave the GQ and take an alternate route through the hill country to the west. Though slower, this two-lane highway saves him about $20 in tolls. It also provides a glimpse of what life was like before the GQ. The accident rate on two-lane highways in India is much higher than on the GQ, and that, says Rakesh, "is probably the best thing about these new highways. They're a lot safer."

In midafternoon we pass a ghoulish wreck—a truck pulling out onto the highway had been hit broadside by an 18-wheel flatbed speeding downhill with two eight-ton blocks of white marble from a local quarry. The enormous blocks hadn't been lashed down but were simply resting on the truck bed. Upon impact, both slid forward and flattened the cab, crushing the driver and his two helpers to death.

In such cases, mobs often quickly form and attack the surviving driver, regardless of whether he was at fault. I came upon half a dozen accidents during my travels on the GQ, and invariably the crowd was agitated, far more interested in meting out justice than in giving first aid to the poor soul broken and bleeding in the roadway. One night, Rakesh says, he collided with an auto rickshaw that recklessly pulled out in front of him. As he tried to help the rickshaw driver, he noted with alarm that a mob was forming, yelling for the truck driver's blood. He quickly slipped in among them and joined the chorus shouting, "Where is that sonofabitch driver? Kill him!"

If not for the GQ, 29-year-old Tamil Selvan might still be farming coconuts in his village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Instead, young Tamil dutifully rode his father's bicycle to and from a government school in a larger village a few miles away. Next he attended a technical institute in a nearby town, and now he works as a senior technician at the giant Hyundai car factory on the GQ just west of Chennai, finding and fixing flaws in the silvery metal shells that come sweeping down the assembly line, pausing at each workstation for an average of 64 seconds. Once assembled, his handiwork is painted and polished and shipped, via trucks on the GQ, to the port at Chennai and then all over the world—an outcome that, even after ten years on the job, Tamil still finds hard to fathom. "Think of all the things these cars endure during their lifetimes"—he says earnestly—"all the extremes of weather, the different roads and traffic around the world. It's hard to believe their journey starts here."

Tamil, a quiet, solidly built family man with a mustache, spends his nine-hour workday in a uniform—dark blue polo shirt and pants, white dust mask, orange earplugs, white gloves—and seems always to have a tool in his hand. He was one of Hyundai's original hires in 1998, after the South Korean automaker built its factory here on a flat, 535-acre tract of land. Today Hyundai's 5,400 employees embody the qualities that have helped make India one of the hottest destinations in the world for manufacturers. Martii Salomaa, a Finnish manager at the neighboring Nokia factory that opened in 2006 and now employs 9,000 people, says India has "the most amazing workforce in the world. People here are creative, driven, full of energy and new ideas. You don't need to push them, because they push each other relentlessly; the challenge is channeling their incredible energy."

Tamil doesn't think of himself as a fast-lane innovator so much as a problem solver, just like millions of other south Indian kids who grow up in a village miles from the nearest paved road and help their fathers, as Tamil did, farm small plots of mangoes and rice and coconuts. At work, one of Tamil's suggestions—to run a second hydraulic line under the workstation so the team's drills could be used efficiently on both sides of the car—was just common sense, but it saved the company thousands of hours and earned him recognition as Hyundai's Man of the Month. It is his proudest accomplishment, and he keeps the award certificate, with the printed inscription, "V ARE PROUD OF YOU," in a special book at home. He used the 2,500-rupee cash award to help buy a secondhand motorcycle so that he, his wife, and young son could travel to his home village for festivals and occasional weekend visits.

Every factory on the GQ, including Hyundai, creates its own "ecosystem," opening dozens of specialized niches that are quickly filled by energetic Indian entrepreneurs. Hyundai, for example, is surrounded by 83 smaller companies, which supply it with windshields, fasteners, headlights, rearview mirrors, and other specialty parts. Each of these companies in turn has suppliers of its own to provide truck transport, warehousing, clerical services, and logistical support. India has also created Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that provide new infrastructure and a tax holiday to foreign companies making products for export using Indian workers. Today there are more than 200 SEZs in India, which generate more than $15 billion in annual exports and provide jobs for more than half a million Indian workers. The vitality of these ecosystems is partly responsible for India's soaring economic growth rate of 9 percent a year, second only to China among comparable market economies.

Yet unlike China, India is a freewheeling democracy where clashes over land for the highway and its enterprise zones are inevitable. In a country as densely populated as India—more than a billion people living in an area about a third the size of the United States—seemingly every inch of viable land is spoken for. Building a factory gobbles farms; widening a highway displaces thousands of small shops, restaurants, truck stops, tea stalls, and other businesses. Roads do change everything, and not always to everyone's advantage.

Taunts and tear gas canisters were whistling through the air one hot Sunday afternoon last year, when the war over land erupted near Singur, a farming district west of Kolkata along the Golden Quadrilateral. The scene unfolded amid billowing clouds of tear gas, which drifted back and forth across a pastoral landscape like a scene from the Civil War. Massed on one side of a flat, open field in a Gandhian display of civil disobedience were several thousand farmers from surrounding villages, who had gathered to take back land seized by the government. Facing them was a battle line of several hundred state police in khaki uniforms, armed with shields and lathis, heavy, four-foot-long bamboo staffs capable of rendering a farmer senseless, or lifeless, if swung with enough force.

Behind the police line was a ten-foot-tall brick wall surrounded by barbed wire, and behind that 645 acres of farmland that the West Bengal state government had leased to Tata Motors, the giant Indian automaker, as incentive to build a factory here. Adjacent to the GQ and just an hour from Kolkata, the site had clear advantages for a $560-million company that ships its products all over India and the world, and Tata Motors, assured by state officials that they had followed due process of the law, had already committed to build its revolutionary $2,500 car here.

Over the past decade, India's Highway Authority has gone to extraordinary lengths to compensate those in the path of the Golden Quadrilateral. Usually landowners and tenants have been paid by the Indian government, partly with funds loaned by the World Bank for that purpose. In the adjacent enterprise zones, the burden rests with state governments to acquire acreage for economic development. Ironically, it's the Communist Party leaders of West Bengal—one of India's poorest states, lagging years behind in economic development—who've turned suddenly and rabidly pro-business, resorting to land confiscation and strong-arm tactics to lure manufacturers at the expense of the poor farmers who elected them in the first place. When that happens, the clashes over land turn ugly.

Here in Singur, an old woman, furious, staggered bravely across the battlefield toward the police line, swinging a heavy stick that was bigger than she was. "Our lands are being stolen from us! Where is your humanity?" she screamed hoarsely, to cheers from the hundreds of protesters who followed her. Bare-chested teenage boys, stirred by her courage, dashed forward and threw rocks and bricks at the police, who batted them away with their shields. At a signal, the police front line began moving toward the demonstrators with their lathis raised, as others launched tear gas canisters and fired rubber bullets at the farmers. In the clash that followed, dozens of protesters were injured, although the police likely restrained themselves because journalists were present. That night, after we left, the police returned in force, arresting the leaders of the protest, beating many more with their lathis. The state intelligence bureau called our guide and issued a warning: If we came back, we'd be questioned too.

A few days later some of the protesters gathered at a nearby farming village called Beraberi. A farmer named Kashinath Manna, 75, his eyes shining like a teenager's, spoke about the seven acres he and his two brothers had farmed since they were children, land they inherited from their father, and from his father before him. Their crops are irrigated from tube wells that the Indian government drilled during the agricultural green revolution of the 1960s to combat malnutrition and make India self-sufficient. That well water, Kashinath says, was the magic ingredient; it unlocked the fertility in the soil to produce up to five harvests a year—of okra, beans, potatoes, hemp—a yield rich enough to support the extended family, 32 children and grandchildren, who depend on Kashinath and his brothers. "We produced so much that I had to use a bicycle rickshaw to haul it to market," he says.

These days Kashinath can carry his crops to market in a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. That's all he can grow on his share of a third of an acre of land, which is what the family has left now that Tata Motors is moving in next door. He will never forget the day they lost the rest. It was early morning, just after dawn, and as he turned off the dirt road of his village onto the footpath leading to the family's land, he was shocked to see that a cordon of police stood between him and the fields; behind them, workers were putting up a barbed-wire fence. As he approached, the police raised their weapons and told him to go home. It was as if he'd been stripped naked, he says. "We are only farmers," he says sadly. "That's all I know how to do. I've been thinking lately of suicide." One of Kashinath's best friends, also a farmer, killed himself a few months ago.

The government of West Bengal claims powers of acquisition under an 1894 law and maintains that most farmers in Singur willingly vacated their lands in return for compensation. That claim offends Kashinath. No farmer would voluntarily give up fertile land, he says. "And if we gave it willingly, why do they need to deploy the police against us? I'm not a criminal. I haven't done any harm to anyone in my life. But now I'm sick with worry. What will we eat? How will we live? What is the future of our children?"

Anuradha Talwar of the West Bengal Agricultural Workers Union says that "many farmers were intimidated by party workers into giving written consent for the occupation of their land," and that only about 60 percent of the land was lawfully transferred. To press the issue, her organization filed a lawsuit on behalf of the farmers, which is currently making its way through the courts.

Across the country in his Mumbai office, Ravi Kant, managing director of Tata Motors, a revered Indian company with a record of social responsibility, admits that at Singur "there's room for improvement," but prefers to focus on the 2,000 jobs and various other economic advantages his factory on the Golden Quadrilateral will bring to the people of West Bengal, one of the least developed states in the country. "In the end, many more people will benefit from this project than be hurt by it," adds his colleague Debasis Ray, himself a native of West Bengal. "That's the nature of progress."

Farmers are already feeling the benefits of the highway in some areas. In Mettur, a tidy farming village at the end of a one-lane road, the parents of Tamil Selvan, the Hyundai worker, now live in a fine, two-story house made of concrete blocks 170 miles from the factory where their son works. Next door is their original one-room house of sticks and mortar, which they now use to store coconuts, potatoes, and burlap sacks full of rice. A few years ago the state government paved the road to the village, connecting it to secondary highways and from there to the GQ and distant markets. Another innovation of the 1990s—wireless telephone networks, which followed the path of India's highways to give road travelers uninterrupted coverage—helps farmers take advantage of the new roads. In places like Mettur, for the cost of a $30 cell phone and a few dollars a month, farmers can now conduct trade from hundreds of miles away, eliminating the middleman and removing some of the guesswork from long-distance hauling and selling.

"The roads have changed everything," says Tamil's father, Devaraja Pillai, a warm, dignified man of 59. "It used to be that we could only sell our crops in the towns nearby, and prices were low. Now we've got a truck, which we use to haul our coconuts and mangoes to bigger markets like Bangalore and Chennai. We can get seven rupees a pound for our coconuts in Bangalore, three times what we make around here. And we can get there in about half the time it used to take, so our crops don't spoil." A part-time farmer, Tamil's father is also the village schoolteacher, a poet, and a devotee of the 19th-century guru Swami Vivekananda, whose long hair and large, beatific eyes appear in photographs around the house. On the bright green wall of the living room, he has posted one of Vivekananda's sayings: "Education is the manifestation of perfection already in man." Those words became his credo.

Six months after Tamil started at Hyundai, the company invited the families of their new workers to visit the plant, all expenses paid. Tamil's mother and father made the bus journey to Chennai along the Golden Quadrilateral and were overwhelmed by the size of Hyundai, which Tamil had warned them was a "huge company, like a sea." They watched, wide-eyed, as their son operated equipment worth millions of dollars and marveled at the efficiency of the assembly line, described by his father as "one side robot, one side man, working as one being."

Devaraja also saw the perfection in Tamil as never before, a manifestation of the acquired skill and confidence that today frees millions of rural Indians from the bonds of caste and geography. In the past two decades, the number of Indians living below the poverty level has dropped, and the middle class has grown dramatically—an achievement that even Gandhi would have celebrated.

India's founding father, still revered, is a symbol of an India that is difficult to imagine ever being paved over by a highway or seized for new factories. But these days, Gandhi is many things to many people. "India may have evolved past the ‘austerity' mind-set, but Gandhi has never been more relevant than he is today," says Subhabrata Ghosh, an executive at Saatchi & Saatchi/India who keeps a keen eye on the national zeitgeist. "Gandhi is about courage, competence, empowerment, and a willingness to manifest change. It's true we live in a time when there is no freedom struggle. But there is a global marketplace, and Gandhi was one of the most fiercely competitive people who ever lived. He threw out the British without firing a shot!"

In the fast lane to Delhi, I finally met up with the Gandhi that Ramachandra Guha suggested I watch for, the wise man on the bicycle telling Indians to slow down, be gentle, don't forget who you really are. One morning in Rajasthan, all vehicles were forced off one side of the highway by a herd of several hundred Brahman cattle being driven, against traffic, by a pair of colorfully dressed nomads. As the animals grazed on bushes in the yard of a house nearby, I noticed an old man reclining under a pipal tree, smoking a hookah. Behind him, a dusty bicycle leaned against the wall of his compound, a few hundred feet from the highway. I wandered over just as he was trying to call back his dog, which was barking ferociously at the cows: "Beevcoof! You idiot! Get back here!" His name was Deen Dayal, he said, and he looked like something out of the British-Afghan wars, with his huge, white handlebar mustache, buzz cut, and bright eyes full of mischief. In a strong, commanding voice, he said he's 80 years old and owns land on both sides of the highway, along with three dhabas, or truck stops, and a gas station that's making money hand over fist, thanks to traffic on the GQ. These days he rides his bicycle on footpaths between the house and his businesses, but he doesn't dare ride on the highway anymore. "I don't hear that well, and these cars are going so fast it scares me. Half my land is on the other side of the highway, and I'm too scared to cross the road."

While we were on the subject of the road, he said, "I'm very angry. I just found out that they're going to widen the highway again, and take my whole yard this time." He showed me a metal stake driven two feet beyond the corner of his front wall. "These highway guys came with 15 or 20 cops and measured to here," he said. "My yard, my tree, my resting place—all gone."

We sat in silence a while, and then, calmer, he told me how it was before there were roads, and they had to walk ten miles to the nearest train station. He lived through the partition of India and Pakistan, and he talked about that too.

"Did you ever happen to meet Gandhi?" I asked.

"I did," he said. Just after independence, there was a big push for new roads, and the government planned to put one here. "But they wanted to run it right through our farm, where the highway is today. So my father and I and a group of other people took the train to Delhi to ask Gandhiji and Nehru to move the road to the edge of our land so it wouldn't be cut in half."

"How did it go?" I asked.

"Oh, it was very nice," he said. "They met with us and shook our hands and listened to our arguments very politely. And then they went ahead and did exactly what they were planning to do all along."