CHENNAI, India — India is in the midst of a car boom. At the latest count, there were a staggering 123 automobile models manufactured by 30 companies, and each model comes in several varieties. Despite the recession, the country’s appetite for cars appears insatiable. Tacitly encouraging this is the government, which benefits every time a car manufacturer sets up shop in India. The end result is traffic chaos.
Sadly, in an overpopulated and poverty- stricken nation like India, where most people cannot afford one decent meal a day, let alone dream of buying a car, the conveyance of choice should be mass public transport, not private vehicles.
Over the years, public transportation has been grossly neglected. Kolkata has a subway system that runs only on one north-south corridor. Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore have only now begun to toy with the idea of a subway. New Delhi’s subway began operating only a few years ago. Hopefully a good network will be in place by next October, when the Commonwealth Games begin.
It takes little intelligence or imagination to understand that since most Indian cities have less than 20 percent road space (compared to the desired 33 percent), the best way to move people is with a well-financed public- transport plan that includes buses and trains. Such modes of transportation could save a mind-boggling amount of road space.
Of equal concern is the fact that gasoline supplies will eventually run out. When America and Europe were first becoming addicted to gasoline, the fear of fuel shortages was not an issue. The United States destroyed its railways to promote the car. Even in China, cars are now slowly replacing bicycles in the name of development.
That Europe and Japan did not allow their public-transportation systems to go to seed has helped to stabilize their economies since the first oil shock in 1973.
In India, the number of two- and four-wheel vehicles began to rise in the 1990s as economic reforms led to better salaries and more ambitious dreams. Indians equate the ownership of a private vehicle with higher social status as well as convenience.
In Delhi alone, 1,000 more cars are added to the roads every day and the metro cannot make a significant dent in the resulting chaos. One reason why cars are so popular is the average Indian’s obsession with status: Can a low-paid clerk and a vice president working at the same firm be seen together on the train? For some the answer is no.
Bangalore will need millions of dollars to unsnarl its traffic by building new roads and upgrading present ones. It would be far better, however, to use funds to build a rapid rail system and improve the public bus service.
A few years ago London imposed a congestion tax on private cars and managed to reduce the number of vehicles entering the city center. Manhattan has such prohibitive parking fees that car owners think twice before driving there. In Singapore it can be more expensive to get a car license than to buy a new vehicle!
Even as such measures have greatly discouraged private car use, saved on gas, reduced pollution and relieved human misery, India is set to herald a car revolution this year. Last year, Tata introduced the Nano for just about $2,000 and traffic jams are growing worse as this cheap car replaces motorcycles.
Most Indian cities have rivers and canals that could be used to transport people and goods, but plans to do so are gathering dust. Underground transportation is taking off at an irritatingly slow pace.
Not many people use Chennai’s overhead rails because the stations are filthy, the approaches to them are filthier, and the system is not linked to other transportation networks such as buses.
Unfortunately it is clear that there is no political will to better India’s public- transport system. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once termed Indian cities “living hells.” They are turning even more hellish as the number of automobiles and motorcycles increase.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a journalist based in Chennai, India.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.