Indians Hit the Road Amid Elephants

Friday, January 11, 2008

By Somini Sengupta

A few weeks ago, the traditional Indian joint family household of Vineet Sharma, a fertilizer industry consultant, achieved a long deferred dream. Having ferried themselves on scooters all these years, the Sharmas bought a brand-new, silver-gray hatchback known as the Tata Indica.

Never mind that none of the six adult members of the household knew how to drive. No sooner had the car arrived than Mr. Sharma, 34, took it for a spin and knocked over a friend. His brother slammed into a motorcyclist, injuring no one but damaging the bumper. The brother was so scared that he no longer gets behind the wheel, except on Sundays, when the roads are empty.

“We bought it first, and then we thought about driving,” Mr. Sharma confessed.

This week, as Tata Motors unveiled the world?s cheapest car, the $2,500 Nano, and automakers from across the world came to New Delhi to peddle their wares to a bubbling Indian car market, Mr. Sharma began to think about his driving.

He enrolled in a weeklong driving course and dived headlong into the madness of the morning commute in a beat-up Maruti 800. Its odometer had long ago stopped working, and it carried on its roof a sign for the driving school, accompanied, improbably, by the smiling face of the animated movie character Shrek. He wasn?t going very fast and said he was very nervous.

He had good reason, for his first real foray on four wheels revealed how many hurdles still hinder the new Indian romance with the road. Amid a cacophony of horns, a blood-red sport utility vehicle weaved between cars, passing Mr. Sharma within a razor?s edge on the right. A school bus snuggled close up on his left. No one seemed to care about traffic lanes. Cars bounced in and out of crater-size potholes.

Indians are rushing headlong to get behind the wheel, as incomes rise, car loans proliferate, and the auto industry churns out low-cost cars to nudge them off their motorcycles. They bought 1.5 million cars last year. By some estimates India is expected to soar past China this year as the fastest-growing car market.

The capital was aflutter with car mania this week, as the biennial Auto Expo opened Thursday and carmakers, both Indian and foreign, began rolling out the first of 25 new models.

The greatest hype came from Tata Motors, which introduced the Nano as the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” played loudly in the background.

There were also luxury sedans and sport utility vehicles being offered, as well as a variety of small cars, gadgets and car parts.

Not unexpectedly, Indian environmentalists have assailed the car craze, particularly because of the country?s relatively relaxed emissions standards and the proliferation of diesel-powered cars.

Even the usually nonconfrontational chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra K. Pachauri, has sharply criticized the small car boom, questioning Tata Motors in particular for devoting itself to building cheap cars rather than efficient mass transportation. Greenpeace this week called for mandatory fuel efficiency standards, including information on carbon dioxide emissions.

In his first driving lesson, Mr. Sharma had more immediate worries in mind. Sharing the road with him were a bicyclist with three cooking-gas cylinders strapped to the back of his bike, a pushcart vendor plying guavas, a cycle rickshaw loaded with a photocopy machine (rickshaws often being the preferred mode of delivery for modern appliances).

There were also a great many pedestrians, either leaping into traffic in the absence of crosswalks or marching in thick rows on the sides of the road in the absence of sidewalks. At one point, a car careered down the wrong side of the road. Then a three-wheeled scooter-rickshaw came straight at Mr. Sharma, only to duck swiftly down a side street. At least this morning there was no elephant chewing bamboo in the fast lane, as there sometimes is.

Dinner party chatter here is usually rife with theories on road management. It is said that Indians drive as though they are still on two wheels, or that snaking in and out of lanes is the only way so many cars can survive on narrow, ill-kept roads. Mr. Sharma?s theory was simpler.

“We have a knack for breaking laws,” he muttered.

The city?s top police official in charge of traffic shared that sentiment. He was vexed by all this talk of new low-cost cars.

“My concern is not with cars. My concern is with drivers,” said Suvashish Choudhary, the deputy commissioner of police. “Every new car will bring new drivers who are not trained for good city driving.”
With a population of nearly 16.5 million, New Delhi now adds 650 vehicles to its roads each day. At last count, there were 5.4 million vehicles in all, a more than fivefold increase in 20 years; scooters and motorbikes still outnumber cars two to one.

Mr. Choudhary was reminded of the remarkable fact that the sharp rise in the number of cars in New Delhi had not been accompanied by a sharp rise in traffic accidents. He scoffed, and went on to list his grievances: no one gives way, everyone jostles to be the first to move when the traffic light turns green, and a lack of crosswalks prompts pedestrians to frequently jump out into traffic. He called it “a lack of driving culture.”

Pity the walker in the city. Half of all fatal road accident victims are pedestrians, according to the police. Every now and then, a homeless person sleeping on the street is run over. Last week, a speeding car banged into a policeman standing at a traffic checkpoint and didn?t bother to stop; the officer was critically injured.

New Delhi issued more than 300,000 driver?s licenses last year, which could be seen as either a feat of bureaucratic efficiency or Indian ingenuity. At one city licensing office this week, the test, which took about a minute, consisted of turning on the ignition and driving in a wide circle.

A chauffeur named Ramfali said he had obtained a license even though he cannot read. Mr. Sharma paid about $40, or five times the official fee, to an independent broker who fetched him a license in half an hour.

Car mania has also spawned a new industry in driver training classes. On early mornings, one can see student drivers crawling along the roads and veterans honking madly behind them.

Next in line for a lesson, after Mr. Sharma took a two-hour turn at the wheel, came Anita Vashisht, 40, a police station secretary who took her first lesson on the off chance that one day she could afford a car.

Aisha Arif, 20, was learning to drive so she could better badger her father to buy her a set of wheels. Rajender Kumar, a chauffeur, was teaching a friend named Yogesh to drive, so that he, too, could look for work as a chauffeur.

As for Mr. Sharma, by the end of his first class, he had decided that four wheels, while desirable, were not always practical. His scooter, he pointed out, was cheaper and faster.

His instructor, Amit Yadav, who trains an average of 11 new motorists a day, agreed. He said he commuted to work on his motorcycle. “The traffic is so bad it?s not worth driving in Delhi,” he reasoned.

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Source: New York Times (link opens in a new window)