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The road to possibility

Meandering past farmland and industrial estates, the two ends of the 180-kilometre highway jutting north-east of Mumbai could well be located in two different worlds. Ashraf Engineer reports.

india Updated: Sep 22, 2009 01:26 IST
Ashraf Engineer

Meandering past farmland and industrial estates, the two ends of the 180-kilometre highway jutting north-east of Mumbai could well be located in two different worlds.

The first 90 kilometres of the Mumbai-Nashik highway, now being widened, are treacherous — two lanes are perpetually closed, forcing traffic from both directions to use the same side of the traffic-choked road. Vehicles collide. People die.

It’s a different story on the second half of the central government-funded highway, where four-laning work is virtually complete. Traffic jams that lasted up to eight hours are a distant memory. Roadside business is booming. Tribal people are getting jobs. Land prices are going up.

It is a story of how one good road, often the first test of governance, can change the lives of tens of thousands of people and transform voters’ thinking.

Yogesh Chandak (33), a land developer and former Shiv Sena corporator, said voting used to be along caste patterns.
“Now, all people want is development,” he says.

But at Manas Lifestyle resort in Igatpuri, 133 km north-east of Mumbai, Narbadesh Upadhyay (41) knows who is not going to get the credit.

“Local politicians did not build this highway, so why should we vote for them?” Upadhyay shrugs.

The half-built part of the highway is being widened at a cost of Rs 752 crore, but work is delayed. That could affect business — the road, National Highway 3, is a major trade route. Monster trucks carry all kinds of goods — from wine to automobile parts.

At Adgaon, 85 kilometres east of Mumbai, there was a head-on collision between a container carrier and a truck. One man died.

“At least two people die in such accidents every week,” says Assistant Police Inspector S.V. Mohire (50), shaking his head.

Unless work on the highway is speeded up, he said, such accidents will continue along the unfinished stretch.
There is nothing unfinished on the other side. “Business has grown 10 per cent in a year,” says Upadhyay, the front-office man at the Igatpuri resort.

That prompted Manas to open a coffee shop and a bar-cum-restaurant. Many of the jobs created went to Adivasis from nearby villages.

“Ten of our 60 employees are Adivasis. Most of them are bellboys and stewards, but some have progressed to more skilled jobs like cashiering,” beams Upadhyay.

“I never had steady employment earlier. Now, I get an assured salary of Rs 3,500 — Rs 1,000 more than the best I could manage before,” says Chandrakant Jadhav (45), a tribal employee.

Land prices are soaring. Chandak, the land developer in Igatpuri, says rates have gone from Rs 8 lakh per acre before the highway work began to Rs 50 lakh now.

“My family sold land to an investor for Rs 3 lakh per acre in 2004. When we wanted it back a couple of years later, we forked out Rs 17 lakh per acre,” he laughs.

Builders are snapping up all the land that’s available and top-class schools are expected to come up near Igatpuri.

The economy was the story in Nashik as well. Executive Engineer (Town Planning) Shivaji Chavanke (44) said Nashik’s average growth of 4 per cent should expand to 5 per cent immediately, eventually rising to 7 per cent, mirroring the country’s growth.

The 35-acre winery Vallée de Vin, 25 km down the road from Igatpuri and 12 km off the highway, is dreaming big.

It makes and sells seven brands of wines from its own grapes and is eyeing wine tourism. Every weekend, it attracts about 100 wine enthusiasts from Mumbai.

Hemant Walunj (31), the manager, says the highway has made it cheaper to transport the wine to its markets and has created 40 jobs.

“It’s the grape farmers who benefited,” says Walunj. “They’ll have the highway on their mind when they vote.”