Punecity.com test drives the nation's first expressway.
As I veered bumpily into a little gulch that looked like yet another of those temporary diversions necessitated by the ongoing construction of the expressway, I was not quite prepared for the sight that suddenly filled my windscreen. I could see this sprawling vista framed by distant hills, the picture-perfect visual bisected by the widest sweep of concrete I've ever seen in this country. I remembered the words of my friend Jon Anderson who had said to me almost a year ago, "You've not seen anything like it in your country, I assure you." Jon, who works for a Swedish company that is involved in the construction of a stretch of the expressway closer to Pune, was not exaggerating. The country's first expressway is indeed unlike any road we have seen here.
We entered the expressway at Adoshi, a few kilometres before Khopoli. My foot pressed gleefully on the gas pedal, touching the floorboard in a matter of seconds. In moments, the speedometer of my modestly powered petrol Uno steadied at 120. In the rear view mirror I could see better-endowed cars gobble up the concrete and swish past me effortlessly. Out there in the distance, were cars moving like ants. So much road, such few cars -once again, like nothing we have seen before. Particularly in the Pune-Mumbai section, said to be the country's densest route. "Finally," I said to my colleague Paresh, "the race between brick-and-mortar bandwidth and that of the clicks variety seems to have begun in right earnest in the country."
A few kilometres down the expressway and past the euphoria at 120 kilometres per hour, the warts began to show up real thick and fast. "Notice," said Paresh, "They haven't even got the lane markings on." Come to think of it, the MSRDC --the agency that coordinated the construction-- had been continuously harping on the importance of lane discipline in press releases and ads. I remember having read several dos and don'ts that the ads mentioned. "Heavy vehicles must stay in the left-most lane", was one. Looks like this rule did not apply to contractors' trucks and equipment. We encountered slow-moving, heavy construction equipment crawling not just in the wrong lane but on the wrong side of the road on more than three occasions, making us swerve out of the way at such a high speed. There were more horrors in store.
The expressway is far from complete and has been quite obviously opened in haste only in the interests of political expediency and populism. Come what may, the Maharashtra Diwas deadline had to be met. Or so it seems. Else, how do you explain an expressway such as this, built to state-of-the-art international standards, without proper access control, incomplete fencing and almost no signage to be thrown open to traffic? Another fine instance of the "it happens in India only" syndrome!
One of the most notable features of this stretch is the Bhatan and Madap tunnels. Wide, well lit and ventilated, they are indeed marvels of engineering. The quality of surfacing and the near-total absence of any horizontal seams in the concrete on the entire stretch make the ride extraordinarily smooth. Most stretches are straight and at the bends, the banking is very, very gentle. But the signs indicating the bends, although made of fine quality retro-reflective material, are too small and put up too low. The red-rimmed, triangular cautionary signs are scarcely bigger than the ones you normally see everywhere and can be easily missed given your speed and the fact that they have been put up so low. Speaking of signs, we saw quite a few overpasses and approaches to them that looked like exits. But there were no gantry signs or even indicators to say where the exits were leading to -if they were exits at all, that is.
As usual, safety measures have been clearly neglected -at least as of now. If the authorities do not intend illuminating the expressway, then they must install cat's eyes to demarcate lanes. Then again, no visual barrier like bushes and clumps of trees have been planted in the dividers to cut the high beams of oncoming traffic -a regular and necessary safety feature of motorways all over the world.
Two and three wheelers are not allowed, the MSRDC ad had said. We counted several bicycles, two bullock carts, a vegetable vendor with his handcart, a farmer with a bull dunked in gulal (the red warned us, thankfully) and several heads of cattle -one of them actually blocking our path. I instantly remembered an Israeli traffic expert who had visited Mumbai a few years ago. He had said that real democracy was demonstrated on Indian roads. "The Indian road has hawkers, handcarts, Mercedes Benzes, cows, cyclists and much more. But the amazing thing is that they all have equal right of way."
I asked the traffic constable posted at the hi-tech looking tollbooth about all the animals and the mixed traffic. He looked askance and said that it was not possible that animals could come in because of the fencing! The man had no information on several other matters as well. Can't blame him, I guess. This is just a superhighway --not an information superhighway!
Nineteen minutes of drive time later, we emerged at Kon near Panvel, having covered the 32-kilometre stretch of the country's first of expressway. In all, an exciting experience. Minus, of course, the feeling of safety and security.
By Dev Nadkarni
Click here for more pictures taken by Amit Salvi in November 2000
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