If there is some kind of an award for a word that has been totally bent out of shape I believe a top contender would be 'development'.
A minister or a bureaucrat sitting in an air-conditioned office -- in New Delhi more often than not -- sees vacant land just waiting to be served to the great god development. That the men and women on the ground might not share their faith never seems to strike them.
Our prime minister recently confronted this uncomfortable truth. An all-party delegation from Kerala asked to meet him. One wonders if Dr Manmohan Singh thought it would be something about Delhi's current obsession, the Indian Premier League. (India is confronted by terrorists, Maoists, inflation, and very possibly drought, yet politicians have nothing else to discuss?)
It turned out that the all-party delegation did not want to discuss the proposed IPL team from Kochi. All it brought along was a request that the national highways in Kerala need not be widened beyond 30 metres. The stunned prime minister promised to send the word to Kamal Nath, the concerned Union minister.
Therein lies a tale. Delhi says a national highway should be at least 60 metres wide. Politicians from Kerala protested against this when the policy became public knowledge. They succeeded in lopping off one third of the proposed width, so that a national highway in Kerala needs be only 45 metres wide. Now they want to further reduce the width.
This, I should point out, is fully in keeping with the history of Kerala. I do not know how many readers are familiar with the name of Sahodaran Ayyappan today, but he was a man of many parts -- dabbling in journalism, politics, and social reform. (To strike a somewhat parochial note, he was from my own village, Cherai, although of course several generations older.)
Ayyappan was involved in the effort to give Ernakulam a new boulevard along the waterfront. His idea was to make it a full 100 feet wide. There was persistent opposition to this, and ultimately it ended up as Ernakulam's famous 70 Foot Road. (Which, to digress a little, is now a shadow of its former self thanks to a new set of concrete buildings blocking off the waterfront -- all, of course, in the name of 'development'.)
I was a schoolboy at the time but remember the controversy quite clearly.
Many years later, as a journalist in Delhi, K T V Raghavan of the Railway Board called me over, chuckling, to his office to show me a letter from the Calicut Municipal Corporation. (I think the name was still officially 'Calicut' rather than 'Kozhikode'
at the time.) The city fathers were requesting the railways to refrain from building their proposed rail overpasses.
Like most other cities in India, Kozhikode had grown by leaps, so that what had once been countryside was now well within the town.
This meant the gates were often shut at railway crossings when a train was due. The Railway Board in Delhi thoughtfully decided to build two or three overpasses so that road traffic would not be inconvenienced.
The municipal corporation politely demurred. The city fathers' point was that a lot of people were making a livelihood out of the bus and car passengers left stranded until a train roared past -- those selling everything from lemon juice and coconut water to flowers and magazines.
Before you laugh, that is much the same logic employed today when every party opposes the move to widen the national highways in Kerala. The state is both densely populated and incredibly fertile.
It is all but impossible to widen the highways without taking over someone's rice field or coconut plantation in a rural area, or a house or shop in the urban parts.
It is a bit of a comedown to drive down National Highway 17 once you enter Kerala. (NH 17 is the one that connects Mumbai to Kochi, strictly speaking Panvel to Edappally.) It is a fairly broad road as it winds down Maharashtra, Goa, and Karnataka but abruptly becomes a chicken's neck in Kerala. But how do you widen it in the face of popular and political disapproval?
I should point out that this is not the only case where widening of roads has been stalled. NH 47 is one of the most important roads in Kerala since it connects the political capital, Thiruvananthapuram, to the commercial capital, Kochi. It also connects Kerala to neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
The amount of traffic on NH 47 led the governments of both Tamil Nadu and Kerala to realise that some measures would have to be taken.
Tamil Nadu ensured that the stretch in Coimbatore was widened to a full six lanes while a bypass was built to handle the Salem-Erode traffic.
How has Kerala handled its side of NH 47? Much of it is still no wider than two lanes (a third of that in Coimbatore). And while Erode bypass is now fully functional those around Alappuzha and Kollam are still being built in the most desultory fashion. (Can anyone even remember when the work started on these?) A bypass at Attingal was also "under consideration" the last I checked.
How does one interpret all this? Does it indicate that Tamil Nadu is racing ahead with projects while Kerala is a laggard? Or, more provocatively, does it mean that Kerala is simply more responsive to its citizens? I remember walking along a back lane in Delhi, from Super Bazar in Connaught Place to Bengali Market; there were several families sleeping on the side walk and all of them seemed to be displaced families from the Salem area, economic refugees in their own country.
(Speaking of Delhi, road widening has gone beyond the disgraceful to reach disastrous proportions. Yet traffic congestion remains. There is almost no effort to raise tolls from private users nor, barring the Delhi Metro, any attempt to improve public transport. Is this too 'development'?)
It is a melancholy fact that we cannot have economic advancement without decent transport networks. But nor can we just displace people in the name of a greater good without consequences; that is the equally melancholy lesson of unbridled 'development' in what are now Maoist-dominated areas.
There are no easy answers. Could we perhaps think of leasing land from private owners rather than, as we do today, requisitioning it and paying a small one-time sum as compensation?
There has to be a middle ground between the mal-development in Delhi and the non-development in Kerala. Could we, at the very least, divert a little attention away from such grave issues as the IPL to debate these matters too?