June 16, 2024

Cars define urban India. Everybody you know has one and in every shape and size you could imagine. Like the Americans, the urban Indian is in love with his car, and is not afraid to flaunt it to the whole wide world. To somebody born in the India of the nineties and afterwards there is probably nothing remarkable about this. But for those of us who were born in the decades preceding the nineties this is a miracle which unfolded in front of our eyes. Till the seventies and well into the eighties, India was a largely a land without privately owned cars.

High officials in the government or in public sector undertakings went about in their officially provided Ambassadors. So did very senior army and police officers whose cars could be identified by their flags and registration plates that bore stars on them (defining the occupant’s status in the organisation’s hierarchy). Private cars were owned only by those wealthy denizens of the city who had mastered the fine art of running a successful business in the license raj dispensation, or the leading doctors or lawyers of the town. The rest of the world either used local buses or two-wheelers, preferably scooters of which a plethora of brands were available-names like Bajaj-Chetak, Lambretta, Vijay-Super etc would be familiar to a lot of people who grew up in that era. Among the cars there were only three brands-the tank like and officious Ambassador, the nifty Fiat (also known as the Premier Padmani) and the stylish and sporty Standard.

Most people genuinely did not aspire to buy a car as they knew they would probably never be able to afford one, and in a milieu where horse drawn carriages (tongas) were a regular means of commuting within a town there was no automobile culture to speak of. The only people who had some sort of a passion for cars were members of India’s aristocracy like the former maharajas and zaimndars (landlords) and officers serving in the defence forces. For the lay people Hindi movies were their only exposure to flamboyant American cars (Impala) driven with flair by film stars like Rajesh Khanna and Feroze Khan. Young boys and girls studying in the leading public (private) schools in the many hill towns of India did have a fair bit of information about the goings on of the automobile world thanks to the western slant of their education. They would source information from overseas magazines, the leading international best sellers they would read and from watching action paced American or British (James Bond) movies.

This was how things were until the Maruti- Suzuki tsunami hit urban India in the early eighties. Here was a nifty and fast car powered by a small but surprisingly powerful engine that zipped and darted on the roads of Delhi and other Indian town and cities like no car they had seen before. The fact that it was small and affordable, delivered great performance and mileage ignited the urban Indian mind to the tantalising prospect of owning a car of their own. What started as a trickle became a deluge, and the fact that the launch of Maruti 800 coincided with the opening up of the hitherto moribund Indian economy to the free flow of global trade that spawned a mammoth Indian middle class of professionals with aspirations and money to spare was what fed this unprecedented growth. Unlike their parents this new generation of young professionals was not at all risk averse and thought nothing of borrowing from banks and other financial institutions to fund their purchase. This easy availability of finance was itself an outcome of the frenetic pace at which the Indian economy was trying to replicate what was happening in the leading western countries of the day.

Today India is one of the largest car markets in the world with virtually every brand in the world being sold here. Mercedes, BMW, Ferrari, Toyota Lexus, Volks Wagon, Skoda, Toyota-they are all here. One of our home-grown automobile giants, Tata Motors owns the marquee British brand Jaguar- Land Rover, and Greater Noida near Delhi is home to India’s very own Formual 1 Grand Prix circuit. The transformation it seems is complete.

Not quite. In spite of being one of the most important car markets in the world, India ranks quite poorly on most human development indices averaging a number of 150 out of some 200 odd countries. There is still abysmal poverty, appalling education and health care shortfalls, creaking and inefficient infrastructure, endemic corruption and myriad other ills. While the country makes admirable progress in all these spheres it is definitely not out of the woods and trying to recreate the American automobile obsession here is going to have mixed results. While the growth of the automotive industry in India has been humongous and has generated much employment and revenue, the impact in terms of the environmental costs and the burden on our cities’ clearly inadequate roads has been nothing short of a catastrophe.

The countries of the North American continent are blessed with very large land masses with relatively sparse populations. India may be a large country but its cities, towns and other urban centres are busting at the seams. Thing cannot be like the US or Canada where large numbers of people can think of owning two cars and a large suburban house (the recent economic woes make that a tad difficult). Instead India needs to look at countries like the UK and Singapore where there are embargoes on the usage of private cars. In countries like Holland, large numbers of people commute to work on cycles. Thing have come a full circle in India and perhaps it is time to re-think the national urban obsession with cars.