In the monsoons driving through the ghats was a near surrealistic experience. At one level it was the sheer beauty of torrid rain tearing the veil of low-hanging clouds – like the gushing waterfall guarding the entrance to Phantom’s cave. And, there was that edge-of-the-seat tension – as the rickety old Fiats and rattling Ambassadors struggled to negotiate the bends and curves, their frail wipers flapping feebly - wilting under the force of the downpour and the driver leaning forward with his nose almost touching the windscreen in the mistaken belief that, by doing so he could see the road ahead better.
Aati kya Khandala
By the time we left Pune in 1996 – construction of the new “Expressway” had just begun. Only the small link stretch from Pashan to Dehu Road had been completed – which was generally unused except by lovers for a long drive on a moonlit night. Not for once did I think then - that I would have to keep going back on that route in the years to come.
But exactly 10 years later, the road beckoned me again. On a wintry Feb morning in 2006, I drove up the new Expressway for the first time to check out – what would be Jaya’s new school, nestled in the Sahyadri Hills on the way to Bhimashankar, off the Pune-Nashik highway (Read Back to School by clicking here). Since then, I have been travelling on it – practically once every month, sometimes even twice, more than I do (or have ever done) on any other highway.
Of course – what now appears like a ribbon-like path has been forsaken for the 6 lane racing tracks. The old Ramakant has been replaced by giant Food Malls. (There’s only one outlet that sells decent Vada-pavs – Shree Datta – on the down lane just before the Khalapur Toll-naka). Romance has given way to the thrill of speed.
Earlier it used to be said that, the time taken and cost of travel were roughly the same – no matter which mode of transport you chose – Road, Rail or Air. I remember the fare on the Avro Shuttle flights was then Rs 145 and a first-class ticket on the Deccan Queen Rs 105. The shared taxi was Rs 90 – I think. The travel time on the DQ was three and a half-hour and by road it was a little over 4 hours. Though the flying time was only 20 minutes – taking into account the time spent in traveling to / from and waiting at the airport – it still added to around 3½ to 4 hours.
While the cost equation has gone terribly awry (air tickets now cost nearly Rs 3k and the AC Char Car fare on the humble DQ is Rs 250) – surprisingly, there hasn’t been much improvement on the time factor. Point to point, from one end of the Expressway to the other, one can comfortably reach in an hour and a half (between the 2 toll-nakas of Khalapur/Khopoli and Talegaon - a distance of about 70 kms – I clock an average of 45 minutes). But the entry and exit at both Pune and Mumbai have become a veritable nightmare – of course, Mumbai more so. Getting to Panvel from anywhere in Mumbai can take up to 90 minutes even on a good day. The return traffic can be far worse - Sundays and weekends are no exception. So, all told, unless you are travelling early in the morning or returning very late at night – it still takes nearly 4 hours either way.
Sadly, something else hasn’t changed too. Overturned trucks and tankers were always a common sight on the ghats. Inexperienced drivers of over-loaded vehicles often lost balance on the sharp turns. Frequently one also saw crumpled evidence of some major collisions from the night before. These would generally be found on the Lonavala-Pune stretch where the road was broader and the traffic thin – tempting drivers to step on the gas.
Cousins of Shumacher
Actually, in my opinion, it is the close proximity of Mumbai and Pune – which is the main cause of accidents. Because of the relatively short distance between the 2 cities, many motorists – who would have otherwise not ventured on a highway are lured by the road. This culture of highway adventurism has further increased with the new Expressway. Most people think it is the Indian equivalent of German Autobahns where there are no limits on speed. Probably, at a subliminal level they fancy themselves as distant cousins of Michael Shumacher – and have this irresistible urge to hit the road and burn rubber for vicariously experiencing the joys and highs of Formula One racing .
The official ‘speed limit’ is 80 kmph for the greater part – but most people never drive at less than a 100, often going beyond to 120 or more. Even on the ghat-sections – where the recommended limit is 30kmph – very few drop the speedometer below 80 or a 60 at best. With no idea of the rules of highway driving, let alone etiquette, lane cutting and overtaking is rampant. Staying on your own lane is no guarantee – as vehicles that come hurtling at monstrous speeds would either chase you off the track or overtake dangerously from the left with every chance of your losing control in a momentary lapse of concentration or reflex.
While the long-distance buses and over-loaded Sumos ferrying passengers are a menace, the real high-risk category are the small cars – the Altos, Swifts, Santros and their clones. Apart from overturning easily, these lightweight cars are prone to tyre-bursts at high-speed, which is almost always fatal on an Expressway. Therefore, it is easy to come-by the crushed remains of a car that was flung across the divider and hit a vehicle coming from the opposite direction.
I can understand that, it may not be possible to control lane cutting without highway patrols with their own fast cars as they have in the West. But, why can’t we impose speed control with the help of cameras that are now easily available and eminently affordable. If we wish to catch up with the developed world by building such arterial freeway , we should also adopt some of their good practices too. Basic safety should be a matter of right for the users of a toll-road. The toll operators should be made to compulsorily install speed-control equipments – such as radars and cameras - as a pre-condition of their license. Equally, the state authorities are duty bound to enforce regulations that they themselves have set. But then, human lives always come cheap in our country – be it in terrorist attacks or road accidents.
Vada-pavs on the bend
Without such safeguards, every trip is a test of nerves for which I routinely tank myself with caffeine – at the first gas-station immediately upon entering the Expressway. On occasions when I feel energetic enough to drive right through – usually on the return leg of the journey - I definitely stop for a break before the exit toll-naka – either for a coffee at the new well appointed CCD or tea and Vada-Pav at Shree Datta. But then, I was not cut out for living life on the fast-lane anyway.