Is the Yamuna Expressway more vulnerable because of being in Uttar Pradesh?
The general economic condition of Uttar Pradesh and its institutional structures are not compatible with an expressway.
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Ever since the Yamuna Expressway was inaugurated in 2012, it has repeatedly proved to be the most risk-taking choice for getting to Agra.
Cars damaged in an accident on the Yamuna Expressway. (Photo: India Today)
Those who mooted the idea and executed it will find this an unfair comment. They will say that the expressway has been used by lakhs of people, that it is not right to judge its worth by the few thousands who suffered an accident or died.
Milestone of progress
This kind of argument arouses several responses. Some are of a functional nature, others reach out to more basic issues. Let us take up the functional ones first.
There are many high-speed corridors in the country. Their accident records will differ, depending on where they are located. The value and relative merits of a speedy corridor depend on the larger reality of a state.
The fact that the Yamuna Expressway is located in Uttar Pradesh makes it particularly vulnerable and problematic. The general economic condition of Uttar Pradesh and its institutional structures are not compatible with an expressway. Those in support of the expressway will say that UP's progress can't wait for general improvement in the economy and governance. The debate can go on, and at each step or turning point, it will be shaped by faith in speed as an indicator of progress.
This is where the other kind of arguments start. These are of a more basic nature. The bus coming from Lucknow had better chances of reaching Delhi safely if the road was less speed friendly. Of course, an accident like this has several factors contributing to it, but the temptation to go fast — because you can and you obstruct traffic if you don't — is weightier than others.
Let us look at another factor — the driver falling asleep for a few crucial seconds. We might have called it dozing off if the outcome had not been so drastic. He must be sufficiently tired as most night-time drivers are. In fact, commercial drivers seldom get good sleep. Use of mild narcotic-stimulant to stay awake is common among them.
A rabbit race
Let us turn to the passengers. A less speedy journey would have meant one or two additional hours. The advantage that a high-speed journey offers is related more to the symbolic status it gives to the riders than to any real use to which they might put the time they save. Political leaders are often reported to be rushing to the spot of an accident, supposedly to inspire speedier relief work. In reality, they score one or two minor points in their popularity graph.
An old friend once explained to me how speed and status get linked in childhood. Her teacher used stickers to drive home her objective verdict on children's competitive performance. The low scorers got a sticker showing a bullock cart. Better ones received a car sticker and the best got an aeroplane.
The message was loud and clear, and not so unusual after all. I have often heard teachers calling the quick respondent a 'hotshot'. Never mind whether the answer has substance. Fascination with speed is also a matter of our collective imagination. The idea that different nations are competing with each other inevitably evokes the image of a race. Nations where expressways are common set the examples for others.
No wonder the Yamuna Expressway makes the residents and leaders of UP feel somewhat proud and pleased.
Perhaps this pride mitigates the sting that arises from the deaths of children due to malnutrition and disease. The battle between shame and pride is part of the daily news.
Somewhere, in this battle, we can also place Agra and all the attractions it offers to tourists — especially foreigners.
The Yamuna Expressway enables them to rush to the Taj Mahal and return to Delhi the same day. In the days before the expressway was built, many tourists had to stay in Agra for a night if they wanted to see Fatehpur Sikri.
I have accompanied several friends and students to Agra. In one of these visits, I recall spending a whole afternoon and evening at a restaurant inside the Taj compound discussing the merits of Indian versus Western food.
The restaurant is no longer there, but the discussion lingers on in my memory. It ended when the moon came out. It was not the famous full moon people wait for, just the ordinary one. Another visit to the Taj filled with great pleasure was when a whole class of students reached its terrace at sunrise and sat on it discussing our excursion to the nearby Firozabad till late afternoon. These memories can hardly offer a scoring point in a present-day debate with votaries of speed.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)