National Geographic : 2008 Oct
her. As she passes under distant streetlights, I can just make out the top of her head bobbing along in the seething current of 21st-century India, one more swirling pinpoint in a moving river of light. The road under Menaka's wheels is one stretch of the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ), the brand-new, 3,633-mile expressway linking the country's major population centers of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata. It is part of the larg est and most ambitious public infrastructure project in the country's history, one with a social engineering goal at its heart: Much as the U.S. interstate highway system mobilized American society and grooved the postwar economy, India hopes the Golden Quadrilat eral will push the country's economic engine into overdrive-bringing the benefits of growth in its booming metropolises out to its impov erished villages, where more than half the population lives. Announced in 1998 by then Prime Minister Atal B. Vajpayee, who is credited with giving the project its grandiose name, the Golden Quadri lateral is exceeded in scale only by the national railway system built by the British in the 1850s. For decades after its 1947 independence, India practiced a kind of South Asian socialism in keeping with the idealism of its founders, Gandhi and Nehru, and its economy eventually stalled. In the 1990s the country began opening its markets to foreign investment, led by a pro growth government and staffed by an army of young go-getters who speak excellent English and work for a fraction of the wages paid in the West. Yet India's leaders realized their decrepit highways could hobble the country in its race toward modernization. "Our roads don't have a few potholes," Prime Minister Vajpayee com plained to aides in the mid-1990s. "Our pot holes have a few roads." Ten years after Vajpayee's announcement, the GQ is among the most elaborately conceived highway systems in the world, a masterpiece of high-tech ingenuity that is, in many ways, a Steady hands and a solid education took Tamil Selvan, 29, from a remote village to the suburbs of Chennai, where he now works for Hyundai. Via the GQ, the company ships cars all over India-and the world.