In today's India, status comes with four wheels
Updated: 2005-12-05 12:02
The Dangers of the Boom
"Please do not drive in the wrong direction," a flashing sign implores over
the redone highway.
The feeble exhortation underscores one of the many downsides of India's auto
boom. The country already has one of the world's highest accident rates, with
more than 80,000 traffic-related deaths a year. Few police officers patrol its
roads, which ensures that pretty much anything goes, even at times on the fancy
With India reveling in its rising global profile, there has been little
planning for the traffic, environmental or economic consequences of millions
more Indians acquiring new cars. India's economic boom has outpaced any planning
for the resources, like oil for auto fuel, it will demand. Urban planning is so
poor that in Bangalore and other cities traffic congestion is threatening
investment and business expansion.
At the same time, the focus on cars threatens to obscure the needs of the
many more without them. There are still only about eight million passenger
vehicles on Indian roads, in a country of more than one billion people. By the
late 1920's, in comparison, the United States had 23 million registered car
Poor Indians rely, in addition to their feet, on an extraordinary array of
contraptions for transport. They pile on top of buses in the Indian version of
the double-decker. They ride tractors and bullock carts and pack 13 strong into
Tempo taxis made for 6.
What they cannot regularly rely on is public transport. While New Delhi and
Calcutta have built subways, most cities have not, and they face severe bus
shortages as well. Cars speed by waiting bus riders, who stand like spectators.
The rise of the auto, and the investment in highways, dovetails with a larger
trend of privatization in Indian life, in which the "haves" are those who can
afford to pay for services the government does not provide: efficient transport,
clean water, good schools, decent health care.
Most Indians cannot afford the tolls along the Golden Quadrilateral, let
alone the cars to drive on it. Gandhi, whose foot marches for social justice
defined an era of Indian history, now has an expressway named for him. Its toll
of $1.33 is more than about 300 million Indians earn in a day.
India's growing material hunger has another downside: it is largely being
sated by credit and debt.
With borrowing comes the danger of overstretching, and pricy cars purchased
in Vishakhapatnam's Toyota showroom can always be taken back.
That is where the repo man comes in. He waits at a tollbooth in Rajasthan,
cater-corner from Vishakhapatnam on the Quadrilateral, armed with a long list of
deadbeats' license plate numbers.
In a beat-up Maruti van, with a stick inside, Anil Kumar Vyas, 34, was
chasing down Toyota owners behind in their payments. Befitting his upper-caste
Brahmin status, he was also a local village head, but that brought more prestige
His may be one of the few lines of work that has benefited from traffic jams
and potholes. Bad roads made for easy captures, since no one could drive over 22
miles an hour. On the new, smooth four-lane highway, he has already given chase
at more than 60 miles an hour.
"It is harder for us to catch them," he said. "We're still working it
Courtesy of nytimes.com