This column started in my head when to my surprise, a few Sundays ago I reached Vrindavan from my home in East Delhi door-to-door in two hours flat. This was astonishing. I had grown up with my mother making not infrequent trips to Vrindavan and the task of reaching deep into Uttar Pradesh from Delhi always seemed arduous and taxing.
Things of course have changed because of a relatively new expressway that allows one to zip in and zip out, even with evening traffic. Our journey home the same Sunday in the evening took only two-and-a-half hours.
This expressway, and others like it snaking up and down the country, have brought places like Agra (from Delhi) within two hours of drive time and Meerut within the hour. A friend of mine in Dehradun is doing a countdown to the day, not far, when her drive time from the hills to Delhi would be halved to around four hours. India is now building highways at the pace of around 30 kilometres a day a record and aims to spend around one lakh crore rupees building highways in the next three years.
In a recent video that went viral on social media, the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh showcased his major achievement the construction of an arterial road that he had promised to get built or leave his position. The highway was constructed in record time.
In December 2020, the Indian government and the World Bank signed a $500 million project to build safe and green highway corridors in Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. According to World Bank estimates, the organisation commits more funds to building roads than almost any other activity, for instance in social services or health and education.
Not since the British constructed railway lines across India has there been such a rapid development in connectivity in the country. There is, of course, a critical difference. The British built railway lines across India to establish their hegemony on their colony (it is another matter that Indian freedom fighters used the same lines think of Gandhi’s travels by train across India to overturn colonial rule). The road networks that are being built today (a process that was brought to focus by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Golden Quadrilateral construction) seek to eliminate the tyranny of distance.
The question to ask is: What is this tyranny of distance?
The tyranny of distance is the gulf between what used to be described as two different worlds—India and Bharat. Elitist, well-to-do, upwardly mobile India, and the beleaguered, impoverished Bharat. Often this was used to depict the gap between urban and rural India too.
But the truth is that this gap is smaller than ever before in India’s history. The satellite television boom in the late 1990s and through the 2000s broke through this crack first; the coming of the mobile phone, followed by the internet especially low-cost, high-speed, video-streaming internet has further collapsed this gulf. Whatever distance that persists will now be resolved through this massive boom in road construction.
But make no mistake this is not merely the resolution of a logistical challenge. This gulf is a difference in mindset. It is a difference perpetuated by India’s elite and inhabitants of uber-Westernised enclaves who seek to keep, as the colonialists once did, ‘the natives away’.
This would no longer be possible. The mofussil has and will become mainstream. This will change both the big cities and the smaller towns, the metropolis, and satellite towns. It will (already is) unleash socio-economic changes at a scale never seen before since the country won independence in 1947.
Indians have always been intrepid domestic travellers, for pleasure and to seek employment. The end of the tyranny of distance will turbo-charge this travel, this exchange, sweeping tastes, values, norms and morals from one end to the other end of the most diverse of nations.
The idea of what it means to be a city-dweller and a small-town person in India is set to dramatically transform, all the value judgements embedded in those phrases about to go for a toss. In turn, the small towns and hamlets are not going to remain very idyllic. Already, fuelled in part by the work-from-home impetus of the Covid-19 pandemic, more Indians have sought to leave big cities and move to smaller towns, or at least have a second home in a smaller town, than perhaps ever.
From personal experience, my own sister ended her two-decade love affair with Mumbai and moved, husband and daughter in tow, to Goa. Born and schooled in Jamshedpur, she declared on Facebook soon after that she finally felt once again truly at home—a small-town girl, back where she belonged.
This kind of sentiment was once seen as eccentric. But today it is commonplace. Increasingly, few of us fear the tyranny of distance because there is always a swift highway around, waiting to erase the distance.
Vice President & Head of Research, Invest India, GoI’s national investment promotion agency