A highway can mean different things to different people. I found that the story changed every few kilometres on the Pune-Bangalore highway. The road that runs south through Maharashtra, cutting through sugarcane country and emerging urban centres like Kohapur, has touched lives in different ways and affected electoral priorities.
Lakshman Pandhare (60), deputy sarpanch of Garade village, 220 km south of Mumbai, squints to see through the darkness that has engulfed the gram panchayat (village council) office at 11 in the morning. Power cuts, he explains, often last up to 16 hours a day.
The highway, says Pandhare, has changed the way they sell their crops. It would take villagers all day to get to the Pune market earlier. “Now, we can leave early in the morning and return by 10 am,” he says.
This, points out Vidyadhar Ambedkar, manager of the Union Bank of India’s Garade branch, has resulted in a 30-40 per cent rise in savings. Checking the data on a flashing computer screen, he says deposits have risen from Rs 4 crore three years ago to Rs 5.30 crore today.
But, points out Pandhare, there are larger issues that overshadow the highway’s benefits for Garade’s 5,000 residents.
Inadequate rainfall has left their fields parched. “We have water only for 15 days. We desperately need a few small dams in this region. Highways can bring markets and hospitals closer, but the government should think about the basics first,” says Pandhare.
Looking across his 0.75-acre field, Balwant Ghare (48) is agitated. Ten tons of onions are lying in the open, unsold because he’s not getting the price he needs to cover his costs. “All I’m getting is Rs 90 per 10 kg. My cost price is Rs 100; I should get at least Rs 125 for agriculture to have any meaning,” he says.
What makes him angrier is the “politicisation of onion prices”. “It doesn’t matter that all prices — from sugar to dal — have risen. It’s only when onion prices rise that governments get jittery,” he thunders. “Why should we not be allowed to sell onions in other states where we may get better prices?”
In Wai, 300 km from Mumbai, none of this is an issue. There are dams aplenty for the sugarcane crop. It has to be – sugarcane cooperatives are too politically powerful to not be looked after.
Rajendra Shewat (41), panchayat member of Bhuinj village, says villagers are only angry that the government didn’t consult them before widening the highway.
Sitting in the dark, damp Wai Panchayat Samiti office — no electricity here either — he says no pedestrian bridges or subways were built. Now, Bhuinj’s 3,600 students flirt with death every day while trying to get to their school across the road.
“There are no signs warning motorists of turns either. As a result, there are major accidents every day,” says Shewat. “Chhe baje ke baad motorcycle chalaana matlab maut ko saath le ke chalna hai.” (Riding the bike after 6 pm is like having death as your pillion.)
The quick ride — you can get to Kolhapur from Mumbai in six hours — means many highway businesses, like dhabas, have shut down. “People just don’t need to stop anymore,” sighs Pramod Shinde (42), Panchayat Samiti head. “The two things going for the government,” he says, “are the loan waiver for farmers and the savings on transport that the highway allows.”
This blog emerged from a report I did for the Hindustan Times’ pre-election series in September 2009.