Guddu and Pintu are looking at a road that cuts through fields of sugar cane.
‘Twelve per cent, minimum,’ says Guddu, who’s younger.
‘What are you saying? At least twenty percent, look at how the edges are going.’
Pintu is taller and older, but he never pulls rank unduly.
‘Maybe you’re right, maybe twenty, twenty-two,’ Guddu says, quickly correcting his calculations so as not to contradict his elder on such an insignificant detail. ‘You see, bhaiya, we are also contractors but our roads don’t crumble like those made by some other people.’
Guddu and Pintu are first cousins, their fathers being brothers, and they examine roads the way I imagine wine-tasters assess a new vintage or a strange grape. They come from a land-owning Thakur family, a landlord-warrior caste, but now, like many of their generation, they’ve branched out into other kinds of money-making: they run a medium-sized road construction company, with ambitions to expand beyond laying roads locally.
We pull into the small town of Khhair and we stop to look at a roadside tyre-retreading workshop – at least Pintu and I do, while Guddu looks at a new connector that’s just been laid. I can see his mouth working, as if he’s tasting the thing for body, fruitiness, tannins, after-presence, profit.
‘Arre! The bugger’s checking out roads again! He never stops! Oye, Guddu! Look this way, yaar!’
But Guddu will not budge till he pronounces his judgment. ‘Thirty crores that Bansal took for this! What can you say, really? And people call this a government.’
Pintu is consoling. `Well you know that fucker is in trouble with his construction business. Huge losses. He has to make it up somewhere doesn’t he?’
Back in the car, we take a short-cut. The road, which leads through fields full of white-plumed kans grass, turns out to be under construction. The two cousins have agreed to show me ‘the road business’ as they call it, and as tour guides they are infinitely polite and solicitous of my needs and comforts. As the car wheels roll over sharp stone chips, Guddu and Pintu begin to explain how a road is made.
‘See, first you have to break up the old road,’ Guddu starts.
‘You have to break it up completely if you’re doing the job properly,’ Pintu chimes in.
‘Completely’, Guddu agrees, ‘smash up all the old asphalt.’
‘Unless you’re cutting corners, of course.’
‘Like this fellow…’ Guddu points to the moonscape below our car, ‘isn’t completely cutting corners. See how he’s broken up the road? But it’s not done properly, the asphalt bits are too big. But there are some people in our business who won’t even break up the old road! They just say they’ve done it and lay the new tar on top… and at the end of the next monsoon, you have another contract! For the same stretch of road!’ Pintu is grinning now, as if marvelling at the beauty of the scheme. Guddu keeps his eyes on the road while Pintu leans forward from the back seat. `You see, bhaiya, it’s like this, it’s all a matter of proportion.’
‘Percentage,’ says Guddu.
‘Proportion,’ insists Pintu.
‘Proportion, how? Well, when you go for a road contract, either to repair or make a completely new one, you have to go to the relevant officer in the relevant government department. But the thing is, the man giving out the contract can’t avoid the system. He has people below him to feed and people above him also waiting to be fed, his superiors. So, if some new officer comes to the post and decides to try some funny honesty stuff, he will be transferred to an obscure job before he finishes registering his kids in the local school!’
‘Just moved to a post where he can do no harm! People depend on the money up and down the chain, you see. You are not alone, so that you can become some clean mahatma who won’t take money. It’s not just your money, you are affecting other people’s expected incomes!’
I turn back to Pintu. ‘So, proportion, you were saying.’
‘Proportion is a kind of vivek. You know the word in our Hindi, don’t you? Vivek?’
‘Yes, of course. Conscience?’
‘So it’s a kind of vivek, a fine-tuning of conscience on part of the officer, that “I won’t be too greedy.” That the work also needs to be done. You see?’
I don’t, but I nod anyway.
Pintu gives me an example. Suppose a government department has a budget to make a road for ten crore rupees. In each department there is a norm – say ten per cent or maybe twelve per cent of the budget – that the contractor applying for the tender has to take in cash and give in advance to the officer in charge of the project; the officer then grants the tender to the contractor and work begins; then the contractor calculates his own profit on making the road – the official figure he’s allowed is, again, say fifteen per cent, but what with the investment of the bribe, the man needs to make twenty per cent, so he puts aside two crores immediately, before breaking a single chip or buying a single vat of tar.
‘So, if he pays the officer ten per cent, and he himself needs twenty per cent, that leaves…what?’ Pintu asks.
‘Seventy per cent, in this case seven crores.’ Guddu is clearly the figures guy in the team.
‘Okay?’ Pintu re-arranges his long legs in the back seat as we move on to a smoother portion of the road. ‘Okay? So. Now, say the officer is feeling greedy. Or he has debts to pay off, or say his daughter’s getting married and there’s the matter of the dowry, yes? So he decides ten per cent is not enough, ten or fifteen, whatever the norm is, in that particular department. He asks for, let’s say, twenty-five per cent. Loses his vivek and demands it, yes? Now, the road has to be made and the contractor also has to make his money – he’s not in this game for charity, right?’
‘So, you have to do all this – break up the old road, get new stone chips for the bed of the road, dig the bed deep and wide according to specifications, have a certain consistency of tar that you lay on top, have a certain number of days to allow parts of the road settle before you make the next stretch, while your labour just sits around. All this is the man’s cost, so first thing he does is he saves his twenty per cent, protects his profit of two crores, and so the road is now made from, what?’
Guddu provides the final read-out. `The road is officially supposed to be made from eighty-five percent of total budget, with a fifteen per cent fee for the contractor. Now, if twenty-five per cent goes to the officer, that leaves seventy-five. Now minus from that the contractor’s twenty per cent, which leaves only fifty-five per cent to actually make the road.’
We’ve now moved on to a fairly good stretch of tarmac running parallel to a railway line. In the distance I see a row of electricity pylons ranged across the flat, north Indian farmland and then I notice something odd: echoing the towers are pillars, tall modernist vases of new, light brown concrete, sprouting abstract ikebanas of steel rods. These pillars troop across the green, stretching into the sky, an exact distance apart from each other, so far connecting nothing to nothing.
‘That is the Taj Corridor!’ Guddu’s voice leaps with excitement.
‘Don’t call it that!’ Pintu grins. ‘Madam-ji now insists everyone call it the Yamuna Corridor.’
This is part of one of the most controversial construction projects in the country. The madam in question is the megalomaniac Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayavati. Along with grand residences and massive statues of herself (made by the same local sculptor who once served Saddam Hussein), the corridor is another stamp that the madam will leave on the state. It is a six-lane, access-controlled, aquaducted super-highway that will stretch from Delhi to the corner of Agra where the Taj Mahal sits. The road, which met with huge protests on its inception because of the potential damage to both the countryside and the target monument, has been shelved and revived several times; now Mayavati has pushed it through, building it under the more neutral name of Yamuna, the river that it will accompany along its course.
When our road passes under the Corridor’s route, we get out of the car. One huge pillar looms above us, a few metres to the left.
‘You know,’ Guddu says, ‘they will have scoured concrete surface all the way through, latest technology, no tar, no chips, no stones, just pre-fab slabs of road, just imagine the profit. Six lanes, but expandable later to eight.’
Pintu puts his fists on the small of his back and stretches. ‘You know…’ he arches himself back to regain his full height, ‘…this thing is going to pass right over the village where we were born.’
Guddu also extends the joints of his shoulders. ‘Yes…they’ve acquired land from all of us. Very good money. But as a farmer – we were gentleman-farmers once, you know – you don’t want to sell land, but there was no choice.’
‘Anyway,’ Pintu turns his back to the road and steps a bit into the fields, ‘once this thing is up, you know what they will do for entertainment in the village?’
‘What?’ I also turn away from the road.
‘Every evening the people will climb the embankment to the highway and watch the cars whizz by for hours.’ Pintu positions himself.
‘Pintu Bhaiya is right!’ Guddu is on the other side of the road out of respect for his older brother and me, the guest. He calls out over his shoulder. ‘That’s what they will do, sit there and gawp at the speeding cars and how there is no wear and tear on the tyres!’
‘Well, who can blame them? It won’t be like our country roads, which eat up rubber as if it was a sweet dish!’ Pintu and I are angled away from each other as we each begin. Guddu has started a bit before and I can hear his piss slapping into the bushes, interrupted by the noise of passing cars and motor-cycles. For a while we water the countryside, communing silently like proper Indian men. By the time Pintu and I finish, Guddu is back near the car, holding out a bottle of water in his left hand. Pintu holds out his hands absently as Guddu pours water over them. He’s still looking up admiringly at the invisible highway arching over us. ‘What a road it will be, hain? What a piece of work!’