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On the Road to Disaster in India

Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008

On the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar frontier, the chungi system is alive and well. One of the most unnecessary legacies of British colonialism, no less than five kilometers of trucks -- those colorfully decorated and melodically horned belching beasts, overloaded with everything from steel beams to sacks of flour -- sit idle, waiting to show their permits, sales tax chits, and other sheaves of documents to corrupt officers.

My mother and I are on a nostalgic road trip from Delhi to Calcutta, driving on both emperor Akbar's famed Grand Trunk road and its newest incarnation, the much touted "Quadrangle" project of major highways linking India's largest cities: Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai, and Chennai. We're visiting the cities of our birth -- me in Kanpur, and my mother in Banares (Varanasi) -- and taking an honest stock of India's superlatives: economic growth, social freedom and religious diversity, yes, but also over-population, corruption, and pollution. India's northern belt is ground zero for all of these. ...

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