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Can’t take the high road, can’t take the low

To consider that the arrival of cheap cars will override the problem of a State sleeping on its duty to provide transportable roads will be a mistake.

india Updated: Jan 11, 2008 20:59 IST
Hindustan Times

t has been hardly two days since Ratan Tata unveiled the Nano on Thursday, and already we are looking at Indian roads differently. Regardless of whether the world’s cheapest four-wheeler shifts the paradigm of car-owners in this country or not, to not consider the vast amount of catch-up the Indian-State has to play with the booming auto industry regarding road infrastructure is missing the large chunk of composite picture. There are multiple points of debate about cars and their growing numbers among various sections of India’s purchasing society. The issue of the availability of automobile mobility to all, through economic-R&D breakthroughs such as the Nano, is being compared to the manner in which Volkswagen became the real German people’s car in the 1930s. The Volkswagen slogan, “Save five marks a week, if you want to drive your own car,” can be replicated with similar success in this country with more cheap cars on the horizon. But to turn that old analogy around, having a rising number of cars — whether it’s a Nano or a Ferrari — along roads that woefully fall short in number or quality is like having an expensive computer downloading information from the internet on a narrow, jumpy bandwidth. In other words, taking the German example again, without the autobahn construction spree in the 1930s, the Volkswagen revolution would have been pointless.

India has a tremendous shortage of road transportation — and by that, one means all kinds that include buses, taxis, two-wheelers, not to mention individual-owned cars. To consider that the arrival of cheap cars will override the problem of a State sleeping on its duty to provide transportable roads will be a mistake. Grand projects like the Golden Quadrilateral expressway joining metros is one thing (never mind that there is a growing gap between what is completed on paper or what is completed on the ground). The real issue lies in how roads form arterial connectivity within our cities and towns. Building flyovers, which have almost become a political fad, can’t be the end all and be all. Roads that connect somewhere to somewhere, on a micro- to macro-level, is the need of the hour, especially with a vast new section of Indians looking at car travel.

It would be indeed elitist to deny the pleasures and the practicalities of the individual-owned four-wheeler to people who can afford only the ‘Rs 1 lakh’ car. But at the same time, space is limited and there is no point putting the ‘horse’n’cart’ before the road that it is to travel on. As we get tremendously excited with a new batch of car-owners hitting the road, let us not forget that India is in dire need of vast upgradation in public transport systems. Constructing and maintaining roads are still the duty of the State, especially so in a ‘socialistic’ nation. To blame private companies for congestion is to take the easy way out. As the bard from the country where cars are not only a driving force of the economy but also of culture said, “Your old road is rapidly agin’/ Please get out of the new one/ If you can’t lend your hand/ For the times they are a-changin’.