On village roads like these -- they’re footpaths, really, being pressed into service as roads -- having a pint-sized car is an advantage.
And when gas runs nearly $4 a gallon, in a country where the average income is about $70 a month, it’s no wonder that India’s best-selling car is the Maruti Suzuki Alto, a diminutive 4-door with an 800 cc engine that gets about 46 miles per gallon. (And here in America we toot our horns about 29 mpg hybrids.)
Most Indians, if they drive at all -- and 99 percent do not -- own a two-wheeler. Scooters and snub-nosed autorickshaws, the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis, still dominate Indian roads. But car ownership is rising steadily in India, at a pace outmatching even China. The absolute numbers are still small, but automakers are eyeing the Indian market with something akin to glee.
More than half a dozen new compact cars have entered the Indian market in the past couple of years, including India’s own Tata Nano, the cheapest car in the world. Foreign brands, including Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai have opened plants in India. High-priced foreign cars are even starting to pop up here in the rural state of Kerala. On National Highway 47, outside the city of Calicut, I spotted a white Audi A4 easing its way around a stricken bus -- the monsoon turns even the national highway here into nothing more than a loose collective of potholes -- and I wondered how much the owner spent on replacing its shocks.
Driving a high-performance vehicle doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on these roads, but India’s tiny luxury car market is reportedly growing at a rate of 25 percent each year. The overall car market, according the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), is expected to grow 12 to 15 percent each year, with an estimated quarter of a million new cars hitting the road in the next fiscal year itself.
Whether these proud new car owners will ever get anywhere is another question entirely. India is pouring millions into road improvement projects, turning byways into six-lane highways, constructing bypasses and flyovers. Ten years ago, according to national highway officials, India had just 500 kilometers of four-lane roads. Now there are 14,000 kilometers. In my travels over the past month, moving between cities was much easier, but getting around town was harder than ever. Crowds of beggars and ambling cows are a less frequent sight, but traffic snarls are epic; parking lots are as rare as sidewalks and the rules of the road do not apply unless you actually hit something, or someone.
In addition to adding to the general chaos of the streets, the rise in car ownership, as environmentalists point out, will worsen air quality and lead to more global warming pollution. As part of its Copenhagen commitments, India plans to mandate fuel-efficiency standards for all cars and trucks by 2011, which will help rein in part of that pollution.
But when people are naturally inclined to buy a 46 mpg car, fuel-efficiency doesn’t seem to be the crux of the problem. India needs better roads, there’s no doubt. But it’s also pretty clear that road-building isn’t going to completely solve the problem of getting one billion people from point A to point B.
India desperately needs mass transit to make its cities livable. This year the western city of Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujurat, bagged the 2010 Sustainable Transport Award due to its hugely successful bus rapid transit (BRT) system, which moves some 18,000 people a day. I didn’t visit Ahmedabad, but I did take a short ride on the Delhi Metro, the new elevated train in the nation’s capital. It’s not fully operational yet, but a short ride from the satellite town of Gurgaon to the outskirts of Delhi gave me hope. The Metro is clean, fast, and blissfully quiet -- even a luxury car can’t deliver that kind of ride.