India And the $2500 Tata Nano
Delhi Rush Hour (NY Times photo)
This week Tata, India's largest car manufacturer, unveiled the Nano, a $2500 car, at the biennial Auto Expo in Delhi. Of course, environmentalists are justifiably enraged and distressed by the idea. But anybody who has actually driven in a car in India is probably just shaking his/her head at the prospect of thousands of additional cars in the already insane traffic. Look, for example, at the photo.
The Times alludes briefly to what driving in India is like:
On his first driving lesson this week, Mr. Sharma had more immediate worries in mind. Sharing the roads with him was 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).This description is inadequate by far.
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 careened down the wrong side of the road. Then a three-wheeled scooter-rickshaw came straight at him, only to duck swiftly into a side street. At least this morning there was no elephant chewing bamboo in the fast lane, as there sometimes is.
Listen to the police and look at the numbers:
“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.”That doesn't quite capture the issue, either.
With a population of nearly 16.5 million, Delhi now adds 650 new vehicles to its roads each day. At last count, there were 5.4 million vehicles in all, a more than five-fold 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 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 goes from red to green; a lack of crosswalks prompts pedestrians to frequently jump out into traffic. He called it “a lack of driving culture.”
The Classic Ambassador
When I was traveling in India about 7 years ago, I traveled by car, an Ambassador with a driver, from Benares to Bodh Gaya and back on the Grand Trunk Road, India's largest highway which runs from Calcutta to the Pakistani border, west of Delhi. The ride was an utterly unbelievable experience and unlike any driving I have done in this Hemisphere. Guidebooks for very good reason uniformly urge foreigners not to drive.
Why? There were gigantic traffic jams that materialized from nowhere and utterly stopped all traffic for hours. And then mysteriously disappeared. Vendors emerged to sell drinks and ice cream to stranded motorists. Tata trucks, beautifully and individually decorated with movie stars and deities and gold and bright colored cloth, blared Hindi rock. It was 115 degrees and the wind was like hot onion breath. Cars drove on the wrong side of the road. Cattle wandered in the road. Lines of traffic drove off the road and through fields to avoid obstructions. Trucks and cars that had broken down were repaired in the stream of traffic, barricaded by rocks. Broken trucks that were in crashes the night before lay empty, on their sides, dead carcasses on the road way.
In India the large vehicles have the right of way; small vehicles yield to large ones. The most important part of a car or truck is the horn. You have to use the horn as a constant means of communicating with other drivers. You have to swerve out of the way of oncoming trucks piled high with objects. The trucks will not stop no matter what because they have the right of way.
When driving a night, it is entirely possible that other vehicles in traffic will have no lights at all. You can drive into them whether or not you are not entirely awake. You can also drive into people who walk in the road without lights, or animals, water buffalo, camels, elephants, cows, that wander into the road.
And now introduce a $2,500 car which is probably made of tin foil and will crush its occupants when it runs into the oncoming truck, or cow, or person. This is not what anybody needs in India. This car will make driving an even more bizarre cultural experience. It will make riding on the Indian roads akin to a very deadly, very real bumper cars event.
But, alas, this new $2,500 car appears to be precisely what people want. When this takes hold, you won't even be able to walk on urban, Indian sidewalks safely.