It is a 250 km drive from Delhi to Dehradun, one that’ll usually take about seven hours in a state-run bus. Seven hours on a highway can be fun you’d think, only in this case it is punishment. Most of the stretch is spent in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). The last bit winds through to Dehradun in Uttarakhand (UK), a hill-state that has recently been carved out of UP. The contrast between UP and UK couldn’t be sharper, but more of that later.
Looks like the wagon named UP has been decoupled from the train named India. In the past two decades when the country has chugged forward on the tracks, this state led by Mayawati seems to have got derailed. The highway is in so many ways symbolic.
Dust hangs in the air like a thick curtain, surely it must be the staple ingredient for those who choose to lunch and dine on the highway. Rows of dhabas have mushroomed, each one with a banner that puts the other to shade. The dhabas claim to serve pure food, but the only thing they are doing is to rob the weary traveler of his health, and money. Cut fruits and vegetables are available in the open, the dust, of course, is complimentary. There is no one to regulate, or howl, or blow a whistle or two. These open offers to disease and sickness will be consumed without a worry.
The heaps of rubbish are ubiquitous and unattended, there are vast stretches of highway where the nose wants to simply shut down and detach itself from the body. The competition for space is like at Wembley on a full-house—at every small hamlet, and in each tiny town, human, animal and refuse is jostling for space. The refuse will win. If there is concern for the mess, it is not writ large on anyone’s face. Here on the Dehradun-Delhi highway, the human body is moving about robot-like in 46 C heat, and the will is on life-support and dying.
Marts without walls are selling dangerously close to the highway. Nobody cares really. Someone might so easily get run over, but next day, it’ll be business as usual.
If there are toilets, then they must be in the fields. All along the highway, men are lined up against trees, unmindful of women and children around. “Is this the India of the 21st century?”, I ask myself. And as for women, well who cares? Construction goes on in these parts too, but evidently public washrooms are not part of the architects’ plans. And at places where the bus stops, and there are a few public toilets to visit, it is pretty much impossible to breathe and relieve at the same time. The stench of corruption is strong and pervasive.
In all these years, the highway to Dehradun has never improved. But it doesn’t surprise. A study commissioned by the Supreme Court of India reports that there are parts of UP where eight out of 10 people are malnourished and hungry. There are thousands of children who have nothing to eat, but mud. Yes mud! It is apparent that many billions of dollars meant for the public good, and development of the state, have found their way into the private kitties of people who run the state, and to contractors who must be a part of this brazen, unjustified corruption in order to do business. Very soon, all this money will fund plush malls, and swanky 3D theatres. The rich would get only richer. But at the cost of the silent, dust-soaked majority that will keep rotting in the highways of corruption. When they can’t bear it any longer, some in this majority will lose their minds, and take up arms, and blow up train tracks, and derail the state further. You want to cry.
Enter UK, and the difference hits you between the eyes. The dusty corridors are now giving way to winding, tree-lined roads. As the weather begins to cool, a sense of salubrity settles in. Refreshing smiles make way for dark frowns. The constructions are smarter, and the shops no longer jut into the highway in a characterless mosaic. There is greater respect for the earth, and the roadsides are no longer littered.
It doesn’t surprise me anymore—I realize now why the people of the hills wanted to so dearly cut away from UP and have their own space. UK is what they call the state now. Once they were part of a state in despair. Now, they live in a state of hope. The bus journey has been thoroughly educative.