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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 new highway.

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 owners.

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 than profit.

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 out." 
Courtesy of nytimes.com

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