A Roadway From Hope to Sorrow

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

PERUNTHURAI, INDIA — E. Vinayagam remembers when the country road outside his village ran through a forest. When Vinayagam, born in 1947, was a boy, he and his friends were scared to go to the road at night; the forest was thick, and it was rumored to be haunted.

Vinayagam remembers when the road became a highway. A group of surveyors showed up one morning with their equipment. They were marking what would become the East Coast Road — an ambitious highway project, financed in part by the Asian Development Bank, that runs nearly 800 kilometers, about 500 miles, along the southeast coast of India.

The East Coast Road, or ECR, was built in the late ’90s. Vinayagam was an impoverished agricultural laborer at the time. The highway changed his life. He set up a thatch tea shop by the side of the road. It was a humble establishment, but traffic was picking up, and the thatch hut was soon a two-story concrete structure that served branded cold drinks and fresh fruit juices.

Land prices were picking up, too. Vinayagam got interested in real estate. He started small, helping some of his customers at the tea shop find plots for beach homes. He closed a few big deals for doctors and movie stars in Chennai, just over an hour’s drive from his village of Perunthurai. He built a new house; he bought some land of his own.

Today, Vinayagam exudes the easy confidence of a self-made man. The person who introduced us said of him: “This is a guy who 15 years ago didn’t even know how to open a car door; now he drives his own fancy car.” Vinayagam parks his red Scorpio jeep outside his tea shop. It gleams in the harsh coastal sun.

Amid the reams of policy documents and prescriptions on the Indian economy, there is one common refrain: The country needs better infrastructure. India’s airports and electricity lines and roads are woefully inadequate. The government is seeking $70 billion of investment for roads alone in the next three years. It argues that better infrastructure could help promote economic development in the same way that technology has done.

A drive along the ECR, which runs a short distance from my house, would appear to confirm this premise. The road is lined with commercial activity, restaurants and mechanic shops and beach resorts that have dramatically altered the horizons of local villagers — men like Vinayagam, who at one time seemed destined for nothing more than agricultural work, or women like A. Uma, who I met in the village of Venangapattam, where she had recently set up a small provisions store.

She is a 37-year-old widow, a mother of three, who used to get by with part-time work on her neighbors’ farms. But the farms dried up, she told me, and times were tough. Her store, built opposite a new marriage hall that attracts customers from as far as Chennai, promises a fresh start.

Down the road from Uma’s store, a boating center draws busloads of noisy tourists. They paddle in rowboats and picnic along the edge of stunningly beautiful backwaters; they sustain a thriving economy that has only recently come into existence.

The tourists also leave behind plastic bags and paper cups and plates. This is the detritus of development, spread along the coast like an insidious confetti. A decade ago, when the ECR was being built, many activists objected. They protested the trees that would be cut, and the social and environmental disruption that they said would inevitably ensue. Today, the backwaters, home to delicate mangroves that protect the shore, are choking. Water tables are declining, and village ponds are silting up. The ECR has brought too much development. The land can’t bear it.

A little farther on from the boating center, in the village of Panichamedu, farmers talk about abandoning agricultural work, selling their property, moving to the city. They complain about wells that have become empty, and rising salinity in those that still have water. Large tracts of land that once would have been green with rice are fallow.

Fishermen in the village bemoan the prawn hatcheries that dot the coast. The owners of these hatcheries extol the ECR, crediting it with cutting travel times to their markets and boosting business. But their success comes at a price: The chemicals and antibiotics they use are polluting the groundwater and even, some fishermen claim, the ocean.

Not too long ago, when development was a colder, more technocratic enterprise, the types of harm caused by the ECR would have been dismissed as necessary collateral damage. Imbued with a missionary zeal, the development establishment threw around phrases like: “You have to break some eggs to make an omelet.”

Development is a more sensitive field these days. Most infrastructure projects are preceded by environmental impact assessment reports intended to help minimize collateral damage. But whenever I drive along the coast, I can’t help feeling that the omelet analogy is alive and well — that ecologies and livelihoods are still being broken, and that the price of progress is often paid in human lives.

In Perunthurai, Vinayagam told me about all the people he knew who had been killed by traffic on the ECR. At least 50 people have died in the area since the road was built; he’s lost five relatives. His uncle’s son died six months ago, his cousin died a year and a half ago, and his nephew also died recently, when his motorcycle was squeezed between a truck and a bus.

We were sitting under a banyan tree by the side of the road when Vinayagam told me about all this destruction. The sun was high and his car was shining. He shrugged his shoulders. He said: “When a road comes, high speed will come naturally. No one can do anything about it. This road has changed my life. Without it, I would still be just a farmer.”

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