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In today's India, status comes with four wheels
Updated: 2005-12-05 12:02

A Shifting Value System

India's state-run rail network may have been built by the British, but it came to represent a certain egalitarianism. Powerful and voiceless, rich and poor - all navigated the same chaotic, crowded stations and rode the same jam-packed trains, if not in the same class.

Cars, in contrast, reflect the atomization prosperity brings.

This is a far bigger change for Indian society than it was for America, which in many ways was founded around the notion of the individual. Indian society has always been more about duty, or dharma, than drive, more about responsibility to others than the realization of individual desire.

That ethos is changing. "Twenty years back one car was an achievement," said Maj. Gen. B. C. Khanduri, who as minister of roads from 2000 to 2004 helped shepherd the new highway into being. "Now every child needs their own car."

To him and others who grew up in a different society, that change bespeaks a larger, and troubling, shift. "The value system is finishing now," he said. "We are gradually increasing everyone for himself."

Luxuries are now necessities, he said, and children are focused more on earning for themselves than on caring for their parents. Indians have always been critical of what they see as American selfishness, the way children relegate parents to retirement homes so they can pursue their own lives. Now, suddenly, they are hearing such stories among themselves.

Spreading affluence also has brought new competitive anxiety. Where once everyone in a neighborhood had an Ambassador or a Fiat, the hierarchy of livelihoods, of success, now can be parsed easily through cars.

P. V. J. Mohanrao, 48, an assistant college professor, who came to the Toyota showroom to look at the Innova, could afford only cheaper cars: the Indian-made Maruti and Tata Sumo.

A neighbor who was with him, P. Srinivas, 41, a businessman dealing in glass, could afford larger monthly installments, and thus the more luxurious Chevrolet Tavera.

Another neighbor, a software entrepreneur who, Mr. Mohanrao pointed out, had "spent time in the United States," outclassed them both: at any given time, he had three or four cars, none of them cheap.

"He has booked this car, I heard," Mr. Mohanrao said of his neighbor and the Innova.

The car fever here is in part a triumph of marketing to people who did not grow up being marketed to. Advertising in India has succeeded in making, as Mr. Khanduri said, luxuries into necessities, in portraying persuasion as knowledge.

The Toyota salesmen here market aggressively, singling out beach walkers and mall shoppers. They aim at people who bought cars in 2002 and convince them they already need an upgrade. Helped by record-low car-loan rates, they have learned to manufacture desire. "If that fellow has a burning zeal we will add to the fire, we will tempt him," said Mr. Prakky, the sales manager.
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