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The pile-up right ahead

Sadhus riding motorcycles. Kanwarias doing a pilgrimage on a truck. Half a village going on a tractor trailer to a mela. All these scenes indicate that India's motorisation is now irreversible. The number of vehicles on Indian roads per thousand people is still far lower than most countries. Murad Ali Baig writes.

india Updated: Aug 31, 2010 21:53 IST
Murad Ali Baig

Sadhus riding motorcycles. Kanwarias doing a pilgrimage on a truck. Half a village going on a tractor trailer to a mela. All these scenes indicate that India's motorisation is now irreversible. The number of vehicles on Indian roads per thousand people is still far lower than most countries. But the roads are terribly inadequate and the traffic management deplorable.

Things are changing very fast. Most of us are dimly aware that we're in the middle of a revolution that is affecting the way we live. It is not a revolt of the poor against their many grievances and there are no angry crowds waving sticks or throwing stones. This revolution is mainly propelled by some 350 million Indians between the ages of 15 and 35. About 35 per cent of our population, in both urban and rural areas, have mobiles in their hands and a motorcycle or a car to transport them. This is a revolution of impatient young people whose motto seems to be Dil mange more.

They are in a hurry. Spurred by their TV role models they all want the good life and they want it now. They will not wait for a bullock cart, bicycle or bus, but want a bike or car to take them to the market where they can get the best crop prices, or to wherever the best job opportunities are. Some of them might even steal your car. But, collectively, they are stimulating India's economic growth.

At a recent press conference, a Maruti spokesman confessed that Maruti, which had been ramping up production as per the 16 per cent growth rate of the past five years, had been caught flat-footed by the 30 per cent growth rate reported during the first five months of this year. Last year India produced 1.9 million cars and 10.5 million two-wheelers registering growth rates of 25 per cent and 26 per cent respectively. Today some 14 million cars, 3 million utility vehicles, 80 million two-wheelers, 4 million three-wheelers, 6 million trucks and 3 million buses are jostling for space on roads not designed for such numbers.

During the bullock cart age, automobiles had been condemned as being toys of the elite by generations of socialist thinkers. But this is no longer the case. Seventy-eight per cent of India's car production is small hatchbacks that are mainly used by a large middle-class. Almost all of India's two-wheelers are owned by the middle and lower classes. These are no longer luxuries but essential commodities.

The economic and employment value of automobiles is also insufficiently understood. The impact on employment can be seen from the example of Maruti that now directly employs just around 10,000 people, though it made 900,000 cars last year. But the 8,000 trucks they need to deliver these cars create employment for about 30,000 people. Their 1,500 dealers alone employ over 75,000 people. Maruti makes only 20 per cent of the car. They make no steel, castings, forgings, tyres, batteries, electricals, brakes, glass, pistons or other components. Employment among vendors just dedicated to Maruti cars probably exceeds 300,000.

Put together, Indian automobile makers may generate about 3,000,000 jobs. These salaried employees create a multiplier effect of tertiary employment for the millions who supply them with food, clothing, shelter, medical facilities, entertainment and education, as evident from the sudden explosion of new townships like Surajpur, near the Honda and Yamaha plants; Sriperumbudur, near Hyundai's plant; Malaimaraipur near Ford's plant; and Bidadi near the Toyota plant. Teashops become hotels as schools, cinema-s, groceries and hospitals multiply. Unlettered locals prosper as masons, mechanics and contractors.

With all this happening, we may be building wider highways but so slowly that they seem to clog up almost as soon as they are built. A few cities have belatedly amended building laws to ensure 'in site' parking for every new residential and commercial building. But this is too little, too late and parking continues to be a nightmare.

Popular demand will not allow the automobilisation of India to be reversed. But it comes at a huge price and State authorities need to quickly change gears to meet the challenge. Traffic courts must mete out severe and swift punishment for all traffic violations and licensing procedures must be tightened to ensure that driving licences are only given to those who are properly trained. We can't allow more than 100,000 people to die on our roads every year, as is currently the case.

Murad Ali Baig is a Delhi-based automobiles analyst. The views expressed by the author are personal.