I was in Mumbai on Friday, presenting at an event for customers. After staying the night, I drove back home, leaving a bit before 9 and arriving back home in Pune a bit after 1. Traffic was very heavy, and the trip took an hour longer than the usual 3 – 3.5 hours.
One reason is the Mumbai streets, an example you see above. I was in Chennai for a short time day before and something that instantly struck me was the streets there – all smooth concrete. Admittedly I didn’t see much of the city – only went from airport to hotel and back – but still the contrast was striking. The Chennai streets were smooth riding and allowed slow but continuous speeds. Mumbai streets … well, you may get up to 30 kph for 15 seconds or so, then you hit a rough patch so you slow down, then you try to accelerate and then you hit – guess what? – a speed bump. Anyway, Mumbai may be the richest city in India, but its roads are terrible.
I guess it is no wonder the roads are made with brick. Brick-making is ancient in India. Doubtless when the Israelites were making bricks in Egypt, so too were the Aryans and other races making them here. In my car-travels I have seen many brickworks, like this one:
Looks to me methods in India today are not all that different from the Israelites’ time: Mold bricks from sand, mud and straw, stack them in a big pile, then build a fire underneath and let the whole thing heat up. The resulting bricks look like this:
These particular bricks are piled up outside the car-park at my flat, to be used in some new walkways. These bricks are more baked than fired; I easily scratched deep into one with my fingernail.
Sadly, there are other parallels here with the Israelites of Moses’ time: Many workers at these brickworks are slaves, working to pay off supposed debts incurred by their parents, grandparents, or even earlier antecedents.
While some streets, or parts of streets, in Mumbai (Pune as well) are concrete and asphalt, 90% are this mix of brick, concrete paver, poured concrete, and dry, crumbly asphalt. As you drive around you can’t help having an archeologist’s attitude, as you see erosion exposing layer upon layer and the attempts of different construction methods. For the most part brick does not make for even roadways. Even on the best of footings individual bricks settle differently from those nearby … and the footings here are anything but the best, even for roads bricks are set on dirt. One good sluicing monsoon rain and it is a surprise these roads don’t wash away.
Uttarakhand is to the north and east of New Delhi. Here many rivers flow, with sources in the Himalayas, down through Uttarakhand, then through Uttar Pradesh, finally reaching Kolkatta and the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges, sacred to Hindus, is one such river. This time of year brings many pilgrims to Uttarakhand. The Ganges Basin is one of the oldest settled regions on Earth, and near to the river are many places dedicated to Lords Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna. One of the oldest is Haridwar, 200 kms from New Delhi and just where the river emerges from the high barrier of the Ranipur Range. Haridwar is one of the places where the celestial bird Garuda dropped the elixir of immortality. To bathe in the Ganges here is an experience sought by all devout Hindus.
The ingredients of this tragedy are not hard to perceive. Many things are built quickly here. Tea stalls, shops, and even “hotels” – modest hostels – can appear overnight, which when pilgrims come in large numbers, is exactly what happens. The pilgrims come for the river, so things are built near the river, then a flood comes … all the sadder because of the predictability.
Back to my drive from Mumbai, the going was so slow I had ample time just to look at scenes and at people. It was early in the day yet and while people were on the way to their jobs, work for the most part had not begun. Here some road-repair was in progress:
No workmen were in evidence; they may have left their patching from the night before.
My way through Mumbai took me underneath the elevated metro being constructed here. One of the planned lines goes to the airport, which my hotel was near. The scenes of this part of the trip were not the best, many places resting up against the giant concrete pylons were piles of festering trash. Looking up through the car windows at the 20 meters or more elevation of the railway, I had to wonder what it will be like, when train riders whisk back and forth to the airport, while below slumdwellers eke out a living in their shadow.
This is not all bad for these groundlings. Some actual “slumdogs” living in this area are becoming real millionaires, by selling the hovels they purchased before the airport came into being. One man bought two hovels 50 years ago for Rs. 40; going by average rates back to the 70s, that was about $1.50. He now is selling these for Rs 1.4 crore (14,000,000 rupees), or nearly $250,000. Such is the value of real estate close to the airport in this wealthy city.
Construction like the metro is everywhere here. Another thing impeding my progress home was road construction, like this:
This pic, snapped through the car window, shows the steel skeleton of a flyover support. Flyovers are very common here, they elevate the roadway so a crossing way can pass underneath without impeding the main flow of traffic.
Most major structures here are made like this: A steel skeleton is built, concrete forms are constructed around the skeleton, then the forms are filled with concrete. Judging from what I see around me this is the easy part; the metro areas of Pune and Mumbai are dotted with the concrete frames of flyovers, apartment blocks, tech centers and more. Anyway, with India growing so quickly, it is no wonder some of the big fortunes here have been built on steel and concrete. India is the world’s #4 steel producer and its steel industry is the fastest growing in the world. India is the #2 cement producer, after China.
On the road to Pune I had another experience with steel. Not quite on the main highway, we were on a major road where traffic should have been making 50 kph or so. Instead we were stuck, inching forward. After a few minutes we encountered part of the explanation – a dog, one of millions of feral dogs that live here, dead on the pavement, its neck askew.
10 or 15 meters further on we saw a large bus, a “luxury coach” as they are called here, stopped at the side of the road. Coming abreast of it I saw its windshield and part of its front was caved in.
Then the story became clear. Just ahead of the bus was a Maruti WagonR, a kind of small minivan. It was crushed, accordioned to half its normal length. Apparently the WagonR had hit the dog, slammed on its brakes, and the bus smashed it from behind. People milled about, talking on cellphones. No ambulances were in evidence so I believe – and hope – there was no major injury.
At least we reached the highway and had swift driving the remaining 110 kms or so to Pune. The day was fine and I saw more evidence of the rains in the many small waterfalls running down the hillsides, like these I snapped in the distance:
There were many clear flowing streams right by the roadside. We passed a car of people who stopped at one; a young Indian woman was laughing and rinsing her long hair in the falling water.
On this part of the trip you often see langurs:
They come to cadge food from people who stop at the scenic overlooks.
At speeds of 90 kph or so there were no more close up sights to see. I dozed a bit, chatted with my driver a bit, then at last reached the flat, ending the tale of this ride from Mumbai. I saw a bit more this time than I normally do, just a few stories out of the hundreds I’m sure play out every day on this roadway.
Now, it is evening, and outside my flat the wind is faintly howling. Earlier, late afternoon sunlight filtered through clouds showed me a light but steady rain, each raindrop a streak of light bent half-over by the wind. Typically here, with sunset the winds quiet, but the rain continues. I expect the morning will show us clean streets, and pilgrims of myriad kinds will continue their journeys, hopefully to happy endings.