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Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003

The Road Ahead


Staff writer

The heat built up as our five-hour bus ride from Delhi took us toward the searing Thar Desert. Then, after clocking up 260 km heading south on the national highway, buildings began to grow as we approached Jaipur, capital of the state of Rajasthan. Our journey may have been equivalent to traveling between Tokyo and Nagoya on the Tomei Expressway, but in the vastness of India -- some nine times the size of Japan -- it was merely a quick hop between neighboring state capitals.

News photo
The national highway from Delhi to Jaipur

Long known as the "Pink City," from the color of the earth that built the walls, palaces, castles and other buildings in its old quarter, Jaipur is a popular tourist spot. However, though I was excited at the prospect of visiting a place with such a fantastical nickname, I wasn't actually there this September to do the sights. Instead, I was on a journalistic mission to observe how international development assistance was put into practice in this developing country.

Which isn't, of course, to say that the amazing experience of being in India passed me by entirely.

With more than a billion people, making it the world's second most populous country, India fairly buzzes with energy -- and barrages with contradictions -- wherever you go. Its information technology sector is booming, for instance, yet some 26 percent of the population (amounting to more than twice the population of Japan) live below the poverty line, on less than $1 a day.

However, the national highway I'd just come along was itself an example of the development assistance I was here to observe, being partly funded by the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. Part of India's ongoing largest highway project, the planned "Golden Quadrilateral" will eventually connect the four major cities of Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), Chennai (Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta). So far, 1,408 km of the 5,846-km route has been completed.

Being a spoiled first-worlder, I'm afraid I rather took the divided highway for granted. Soon, though, I was made to realize what an epoch-making piece of national infrastructure it really was -- with the fact there were no railway crossings being another especial source of pride to Indians. In this country, where the British colonialists bound their Raj together through the extensive railway system they built, cars still play second fiddle to trains, and often have to give way to rail while long, long trains rumble slowly over crossings. "As a child, we liked to count the cars of the trains when they passed by because they are so very long," said a local newspaper reporter who was one of my fellow bus passengers.

News photo
The Chandpol Gate is one of the Pink City's attractions.

The new highway is said to have knocked 25 percent off the travel time between Delhi and Jaipur. How big an impact that was to the locals I couldn't imagine. But considering how much the Tomei Expressway (which was, too, partly financed by the World Bank, in the 1960s) changed travel and goods distribution in Japan, I guessed that India's economy would similarly benefit. Traffic between the cities has already increased by 7 percent annually, I heard.

I wasn't tired by the long ride, but eventually my excitement couldn't win over my drowsiness.

It was the bustle of the city traffic that woke me up. Outside the window the street was packed -- beyond packed -- with cars, buses, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles. There were people everywhere, not to mention the cows and dogs being skillfully avoided by all.

But "bustle" doesn't really do justice to the sheer, deafening clamor coming from what seemed to be the nonstop beeping of every horn on every vehicle in sight. I had noticed that our bus driver kept sounding his horn as he drove on the highway. It was almost annoying, but neither he nor the other drivers seemed to care. In fact, many trucks had signs on their bumpers saying "Horn Please," which encouraged anyone behind to beep, so I figured that it's just the Indian way of announcing you're trying to pass. Judging from the cacophony now outside my window, beeping here is as natural as signalling with winkers in Japan.

News photo
Women in the Suraj Pole slum smash gemstones for use in handicrafts.

Through the wall of sound, though, I could hardly fail to notice the color of the women's saris, which, characteristic of Rajasthan, were far more vivid than I'd seen in Delhi. Among the crowd, too, I spotted many stalls selling vegetables and fruit, all brightly colored. And then there was the old city itself, all somber pink as befitted its name, glowing like a sunset.

Soon after I woke, velvety darkness descended. Before Jaipur's commercial activities stopped for the day, however, I decided to check out the Johari Bazaar, which is the city's market area where food, clothes, handicrafts and jewelry shops are crammed together side by side.

Along with a few others, I got a car from the hotel to the market. As we got out, we were surrounded by children, who from then on kept following us and begging for money. It was overwhelming.

I didn't have anything particular in mind to buy, but as I'd been told that Jaipur was well-known for silver, I was interested to see what might be on offer.

News photo
A plasterer works on the Chandpol Gate overlooking Jaipur's bustling streets.

Walking around the shops with all those raggedy children following us, however, I eventually lost my nerve. Of course there would be nothing wrong with buying something; I had the right. But then, when I started to wonder how long these children's families would have to work and save for some silver trinket that might fleetingly catch my eye, I developed an acute case of mixed feelings about indulging myself in front of them.

I did, though, still contribute to the local economy. I found some beautiful, small papier-mache boxes and address books with pictures of women on them made of powdered local gemstones -- another item for which the Pink City is renowned.

Jaipur was founded in 1727 by the warrior and astronomer Maharaja Jai Singh II. Earlier capitals of Rajasthan had been up in the hills and had been easily isolated by enemy forces. But Jai Singh II chose to build the new city on a plain, and it flourished as the hub of his arid kingdom.

Carefully planned and constructed, the streets inside Jaipur's old city walls spread out like a checkerboard. It almost reminded me of the old city planning of Kyoto.

As with most places in India, though, the population explosion has led to great urbanization over the years, so now the original walled section constitutes less than 1 percent of the city's total area. Nonetheless, the structure of the old city, its walls and seven gates remain, ensuring that the local and tourist economies within are both in the pink.

Over the years, however, the gates and the walls have suffered from Rajasthan's unforgiving elements and a lack of proper maintenance. So now, with tourism such an important source of income, and people's growing awareness of their heritage, efforts to repair crumbling masonry are proceeding apace. I climbed up the Chandpol Gate to see the plasterers doing their work in the traditional way under the sun. Looking down at the jammed avenue below, I could see carpenters fixing the gate, while merchants selling everything from fruit to flipflops were doing brisk business just feet away in a scene that can have changed little since the time of the maharajas.

In addition to replastering the gates and walls, the cleanup extends to surrounding areas that have long suffered from solid waste dumping and poor drainage. In order to improve the area for both locals and visitors, water huts, public toilets, pedestrian platforms and parking spaces are being installed.

These projects are included in an urban infrastructure development program being undertaken by the Rajasthan Urban Infrastructure Development Project, which is partly funded by the ADB, and is active in six cities in the state.

Financial support such as this from a multinational bank means, for member countries like Japan, that the funds come from taxpayers' money channeled into the official development assistance budget. In fact, Japan and the United States are the largest stakeholders of the ADB, which comprises 62 member countries. In Japan's case, grants and technical assistance through bilateral aid make up the majority of its ODA spend, although around 30 percent goes through multinational development banks and international organizations related to the United Nations.

Although the prime aim of such works may be to preserve Jaipur's heritage, in the process, of course, they also help boost the local economy and help counter poverty. But inside the walled city, other projects directly tackling problems facing low-income households were in progress.

Of Jaipur's 2.35 million residents, 16 percent are said to live within the walled city, and certainly, as we walked through its Ghat Chowkidi district amid a slowly moving stream of people, bicycles and cows, it was obvious this was home to many very poor people. Here, however, the RUIDP was working to connect each house completely to the existing sewage system running through each street.

Previously, only toilet waste was connected to the system, and used water from baths and kitchens had been left to run away along open drains alongside the roads. The result was that although sewage itself had reached the treatment plant in the northern part of the city, the drain water had simply flowed into the city's lake, where it caused sanitation and environmental problems. That certainly made me understand why the tap water was not drinkable!

Still, the idea of connecting the drains to the sewage system wasn't universally welcomed by cash-strapped residents who were against paying for something "public" to improve the environment outside their homes.

According to the RUIDP, the budget to connect the drains of some 42,000 homes in the walled city to the sewage system is $2 million, with each household being required to pay 2,000 rupees (around $40) within five years.

"It was difficult to get consent from my neighbors," said M.C. Jain, 65, a resident of one of the first neighborhoods in which the work was completed. However, Jain, the leader of his block, said that as a catalyst between the RUIDP and residents, he persuaded his neighbors to agree by telling them that "when it gets cleaner, it will be in everyone's interest."

In fact, the results of the project were obvious just by glancing around the area of Jain's house. "For the first time in 20 years, I've been able to walk through here," said a man named Gali, as he strolled through one of the alleys that had never been clean enough to walk down before.

Despite such obvious benefits here, though, development aid projects -- which are generally undertaken following agreements between borrowing and donor governments or institutions -- do not always work. For example, last year, residents of Sumatra in Indonesia who were forced off their property by the construction of the Koto Panjang Dam funded by Japanese ODA money filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government and related parties. Claiming Japan is responsible as the donor, they are demanding the restoration of their homeland to its original state and compensation for what they have been through.

In the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Indian groups claimed similar violations of their rights as a displaced and underpriviledged community due to the Sardar Sarovar projects on the Narmada River in western India that received aid funding from the World Bank and the JBIC. In that case, after reviews by the bank found the resettlement and environmental aspects of the projects had not been in line with its policies, the remaining loan payments were canceled.

However, as I visited Jaipur and saw the small but steady improvements being made, I was relieved to see that here, certainly, were projects well worth the cost and effort -- and being welcomed by the locals.

Finally, before I was scheduled to bid farewell to Jaipur, I was taken on a visit to the Suraj Pole slum in the walled city -- another site where similar projects to improve sanitation had already been implemented. As I walked through the alleys there, I saw many young women smashing the semiprecious stones for which the city is also famous. I was told they typically make 50 rupees (around $1) a day for smashing 10 kg of the stones, which are then fashioned into jewelry and other handicrafts.

The fruits of their work might have been used for the box with a gem-powder picture on it that I'd bought the night before, I thought, happy to be leaving with something that connected me to the people whose lives I'd observed here in Jaipur.

In fact, even though I hardly did any sightseeing in the famous Pink City, I'm not complaining -- I was able to experience Jaipur in ways I never would have imagined as a mere tourist. And the box, which now sits in my room back in Tokyo, is a beautiful reminder of that adventure.



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