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Change, courtesy a highway

mumbai Updated: Sep 21, 2009 02:28 IST
Ashraf Engineer
Ashraf Engineer
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Whoosh. The motorbike zips past.

The rider on the pillion is a bare-bodied sadhu, his long white hair and janva (sacred thread) whipped by the wind.

He clings to the driver in Oakley sunglasses and a bandanna as they zoom past Toyota and Mercedes showrooms that stud the route to Katraj on the Pune-Bangalore highway.

This study in contrasts is what exemplifies this 240-kilometre stretch between Pune and Kagal in Kolhapur district that was rebuilt as part of the Golden Quadrilateral Highway Project in 2008.

The highway has changed lives dramatically, and not in the same way for everyone.

At the two-year-old Funkey entertainment mall, spread over 55,000 square feet on the outskirts of Pune, 180 kilometres south-east of Mumbai, gaming zones, bowling alleys, paintball arena and themed restaurants pulsate every evening. There is nothing much around it, but the highway has made access to it simple.

Nitin Joshi (28), Funkey’s general manager, says the mall gets 25,000 customers a month.

The benefits of the business are evident. Ashish Mittal (23), CEO and director of WonderGroup, which owns Funkey, says: “We generated 60 jobs.”

Will all this matter in the elections? “Yes,” says Joshi. “I would always vote for people I think who’ll do better [in terms of development].”

Down the road, Yatin Jambhale (23) looks up at a viaduct towering 100 feet above his one-storey home. He is the first graduate in Jambhulwadi, the 250-home hamlet that was named after his family.

The Jambhales own 10 acres of farmland on which they grow wheat. A small patch has been let out to a construction company that pays the Jambhales Rs 30,000 per month because the site is close to the highway.

For the same reason, Idea, Aircel, Airtel and Vodafone rented a few acres from the Jambhales for cellphone towers. That gets the family another Rs 19,000 per month.

The family no longer depends merely on agriculture; it is financially secure, thanks to the highway.

Jambhale plans to do his MBA, for which a bank, encouraged by the money the land is generating, has loaned him Rs 6 lakh. Where will he study? “Wales,” he says.

He is not thankful to any politician for his good fortune. “Nobody did us any favours,” he shrugs, astride his Yamaha FZ16. “The road was needed, it had to happen.”

In Garade village, 11 kilometres further south, the highway, says Deputy Sarpanch Lakshman Pandhare (60), changed the way they sell their crops.

Seated in the dark gram panchayat office — power cuts last up to 16 hours a day — he says it would take them all day to get to Pune earlier. “Now, we can leave early in the morning and return by 10 am.”

This, says Vidyadhar Ambedkar, manager of Union Bank of India’s Garade branch, has led to a 30-40 per cent rise in savings. Deposits have risen from Rs 4 crore three years ago to Rs 5.30 crore today.

But that doesn’t mean all is well for Garade’s 5,000 residents.

Inadequate rainfall has left their fields parched. “We have water only for 15 days. We need a few small dams. Highways can bring markets closer, but the government should think about the basics first,” says Pandhare.

At the Taswade toll naka, 325 kilometres southeast of Mumbai, Deepak Chitwade (42) says the highway puts food on his table.

He used to be a tutaari (traditional Maharashtrian trumpet) player in a wedding band. “Now I sell garlands to truck drivers, making a profit of Rs 2 per garland,” he says.

Will he vote? Chitwade is illiterate. “I just choose the first symbol I see,” he laughs.