Road to nowhere: Longest expressway India never had
In a wheat field near the mighty Ganges river stands a cracked foundation stone surrounded by nibbling goats and farmers driving their cattle in the baking sun.
Unveiled more than four years ago, it's all that remains of an ambition to build India's longest expressway, an eight-lane, 1,050-km (650-mile) road that would have run through Uttar Pradesh and connected one of the country's most backward regions to the doorstep of the nation's capital.
Supporters of the Ganga Expressway project say it would have helped transform Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and one of its poorest, and the lives of its 200 million people by slashing travel times and letting industry and townships sprout.
But having been in and out of the headlines for years, the project has all but crumbled under the weight of political wrangling, opposition from farmers whose fields would have suffered, and a court order in 2009 stalling construction on environmental grounds.
"It's one of those projects that can change the development map of a region," said Gopal Sarma of the consulting firm Bain & Company.
"At the same time, there is the whole issue of how do you deal with people who have held onto pieces of land for literally hundreds of years, and are not really looking at compensation but are looking to continue a way of life that they have had?"
The failure of the Ganga Expressway offers a snapshot of India's chronic infrastructure woes and a reality check on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent promise to speed up more than 200 key projects.
New Delhi has set an ambitious target to pump $1 trillion into an overhaul of infrastructure over the next five years, revamping roads, building airports and tackling endemic power blackouts. But, as the Ganga Expressway shows, such targets are all too often held hostage to harsh realities on the ground.
It's also symptomatic of how, for India's leaders, political expedience often trumps the need to revive investor sentiment and growth. In recent months, one party in the ruling coalition blocked a proposal to open the retail sector to foreign investment and the government has dithered on slashing costly state subsidies on fuel, fertilisers and food.
"It was a very ambitious project," said a former top state official who was closely involved in the expressway proposal, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity. "The tragedy of the whole situation was that the politics came in.
"People don't know what is good for the state, good for the people, good for the country," the official added.
Driving across Uttar Pradesh's existing highways can be by turns treacherous or mind-numbingly slow. Cars and trucks jostle
with bicycles, bullock carts, cows and goats along what are often narrow and potholed roads, gumming up traffic and prompting drivers to veer dangerously across lanes to overtake.
With a creaking rail network, India relies heavily on such highways to transport goods. But their often-shoddy condition saps the competitiveness of companies and creates supply bottlenecks that have helped keep inflation uncomfortably high.
The average speed of trucks travelling on Indian roads is just 35 km (22 miles) per hour, less than half the 75 km (47 miles) in the United States, according to a report by global management consultancy McKinsey and Company.
The Ganga Expressway was supposed to help change all that. Conceived under Mayawati, a four-time chief minister of Uttar Pradesh with prime ministerial ambitions, the stone was unveiled with much fanfare on her 52nd birthday in January 2008.
A contract to build the road was awarded to a unit of Jaiprakash Associates (JAIA.NS), a construction and infrastructure giant that also built India's Formula One track. Sameer Gaur, a top executive at the group who led the project, declined to comment for this article.
Under the state government's proposal, the company was to both fund and build the project. In return, it could charge toll fares and develop potentially lucrative real estate along the road - a version of the public-private-partnerships (PPP) that cash-strapped Indian governments have pushed in the sector.