Nice Tatas

January 12, 2008

Driving in India is a singularly exhilarating experience. The roads are crushed with cars, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, and scooters that simply observe no traffic laws whatsoever. They weave through the streets navigating past stray dogs, elephants, cows, and crowds of pedestrians all trying to cut in front of each other as quickly as possible using up any space present. Drivers use horns not so much to vent frustration, but as aural signals to inform neighboring drivers. They act as a kind of bat-like sonar system which, while effective, creates a cacophony of constant honking through the streets. The best way I've found to come to terms with this vehicular anarchy is to simply give in and trust that the driver will deliver me safely. And if you must drive in India, gods help you.

With a population of about 16.5 million, New Delhi now adds 650 vehicles to its roads every day. There are 5.4 million vehicles total in the city and the police estimate five times that much in the next 20 years. The Indian driver's license test is fairly straightforward. First you must turn on the ignition. Then you must drive in a wide circle. Congratulations! You may now drive a car in India. New Delhi issued 300,000 driver's licenses last year and many of these can be obtained simply by paying five times the usual fee (about $40) to an independent broker who will deliver your license to you in about half an hour.

Most of the traffic on the roads consists of scooters and motorbikes which outnumber cars two to one. You can see whole families on scooters careening through the streets -- first a small child, then the father, then another child, then the mother. Women usually ride on the backs of scooters sidesaddle, discretely keeping their legs together and saris intact, but I saw women of all ages navigating their own scooters through the city streets. There's a middle class service industry some of which I noticed getting off work and getting on scooters to head home in large crowds like bikers wearing ties.

Crossing the busy streets in Delhi requires quite a bit of patience and good fortune. Sometimes I had to wait five or 10 minutes just to cross two or three lanes of heavily congested traffic and even that required a dexterous sprint across the road and pleading gestures. It should come as no surprise that half of all fatal road accident victims are pedestrians. Occasionally, vehicles will run over a person sleeping on the streets which I imagine goes unreported more often than not.

Our guide Afsar told us that there were three things one needed to drive in India: a good horn, good brakes, and... "Can you guess what the third one is?... good luck!". It's true. While our car had good brakes and horn, we finally ran out of luck when a scooter hit the side of our car throwing its back passenger on to the sidewalk. Afsar and his driver stopped the car and got out (more to inspect the damage to the car than the well being of the perpetrators). After assessing the damage (which was minor), they brusquely accused the boys of driving too fast as one of the boys limped back painfully to the bike grimacing. In Jaipur we saw a side mirror casually torn off of a scooter by an overbearing auto-rickshaw bouncing along the ground like so many other abandoned mirrors. Such is driving in India.

This week Tata Motors unveiled the Nano, the world's cheapest car which retails for $2,500. This will have the unfortunate effect of increasing the amount of drivers on the roads which obviously bodes ill for Delhi traffic and the overall environment. I couldn't help but think that someone should make a short of an American taking a driver's education class to be a rickshaw driver in India. I imagined an obnoxious sign on the auto-rickshaw labelled "Student Driver" and the driver going hopelessly slow unable to make any turns because the traffic was so convoluted. And of course, the older, patient driving instructor would be crammed into the front seat dispensing sagacious advice such as, "Always keep at least one rickshaw's length between you and the next auto-rickshaw," and "Cows always have the right of way."


A. Jesse Jiryu Davis said...

Hah hah! Yes, that's what it's like.

Once when my mother & I were riding an auto-rickshaw through Poona, our driver had to maneuver around a herd of water buffalo who were being driven up the street. One buffalo got its horn stuck inside our rickshaw & nearly speared Mom's thigh before the driver kicked it in the head & convinced it to change course.

In Delhi I used to see camels dragging I-beams through the streets -- the construction crew would attach a wheel to one end of the beam, and attach the other to the camel's hump. Quite effective. As India develops, explosively, the practice appears to have disappeared -- I didn't see any camels in the streets last year. Have you?

-cj- said...

I saw camels in Jaipur hauling some wagons and such which is perhaps not surprising being in the desert. But they still seemed fairly common.