When you get on an Indian road it becomes all too apparent as to how deeply the economic disparities are entrenched in the Indian society. The ultra-rich travel in their monster-sized SUVs, the rich in their swanky sedans, the upper-middle class in their hatchbacks, and the lower-middle class people ride their low-end motorbikes. The poor either use the overcrowded public transportation facilities or ride their bicycles. And, the pedestrians, if any, are left with hardly any space on the roads.
Burgeoning car culture
Car culture, which is the heart of western consumerism, is fast catching up in India. Indians, who have a propensity to blindly emulate the western culture, values and lifestyle, are going on a car-owning spree. Almost all the well-known multi-national car manufacturers, coupled with a handful of domestic manufacturers, are vigorously promoting their vehicles in India. The passenger car sales in India are growing at a rate of 10% and it is expected that by 2020 a mammoth five million cars will start hitting Indian roads every year. These days it is far easier to get a car loan than getting a farming loan, that too at a very attractive interest rate.
The ever-increasing disposable incomes of the upper strata of the society, the pathetic condition of the public transportation, the elitism associated with owning a car, and demonstration effect are some of the reasons for the flourishing car culture in India.
The car culture has de-democratized public spaces. Cars, which occupy over 80 percent of the road space, contribute enormously to the traffic congestion. They not only elbow out the two-wheeler riders, but also make the lives of the pedestrians precarious. And, very few cars carry passengers to their full capacity and most of them carry only their owner-cum-drivers. Therefore, cars, which occupy a lion’s share of the road space, can carry only a small number of people making them a highly inefficient mode of transportation in a country like India.
Oil dependency is a vicious circle
These gas-guzzling cars jack up India’s fuel dependency. A steep increase in crude oil imports puts enormous pressure on the economy, especially on the foreign exchange reserves. America, which pioneered the car culture, waged many wars on the pretext of toppling rogue regimes or annihilating terrorist organizations. However, the major underlying reason for the US aggression in many instances was its ambition to exercise control over oil-rich nations with an intention to ensure the unhindered supply of hydrocarbons. The oil wars, waged by the western countries under the leadership of the US, had sown poisonous seeds in the oil-rich Islamic world, and as a result, the entire world is now reaping the bitter harvest in the form of the monstrous terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaida and ISIS. India, if it does not contain the spread of car culture, may find itself in a very difficult situation in its quest to ensure uninterrupted supply of oil.
The pro-car government policies
In a landmark judgment delivered in 2008, the Delhi High Court contended that “transportation facilities are for moving people, not cars, and should favor all users, not just the minority fortunate enough to use private cars”. There are many people in India who hold the false notion that a country replete with cars is a developed country, and therefore, advocate having more cars on the roads to get the status of being a developed nation. Every country, irrespective of its economic status, must create convenient, affordable and efficient public transport system to enable all sections of society to travel together comfortably.
The governments, instead of creating dedicated road spaces for buses and enhancing the capacity of other public transportation facilities such as suburban train networks, widen roads and build new flyovers and parking spaces which are quickly gobbled up by cars and other private vehicles. In many Indian cities, it has been a trend that the people, who buy cars without having parking space, tend to park them on the footpaths in front of their houses, putting the safety of the pedestrians at risk. As per the road accident statistics, more than half of the people who die on Indian roads are cyclists and pedestrians. Lately, there have been increasing incidences of drunk and underage driving, which are claiming the lives of pedestrians including children and the elderly. The pothole-ridden, narrow Indian roads, cluttered with numerous private vehicles, are becoming increasingly precarious for the travelers. In 2015, on an average of 400 people died every day in road accidents. In other words, a whopping 1.46 lakh people per annum breathe their last on Indian roads making them into virtual death traps.
Stand up for the rights of the carless
Despite the numerous disadvantages and unsuitability of car culture in India, the elite are not ready to change their lifestyle. They are not even ready to tolerate anyone questioning their right to use cars indiscriminately. The people of the country, irrespective of their financial status, must realize the fact that the car owners, to fuel their king-sized lives, are enjoying unlimited privileges. These privileges must be curtained to empower the poor and the ordinary to reclaim their share of the democratic public spaces. Otherwise, the rich and the elite, by mistaking their privileges for rights, will transform the society into their fiefdom by occupying disproportionately large space on the road and parking their cars everywhere indiscriminately, not leaving any place either for pedestrians or public transport. The best example is when the Delhi government introduced the odd-even plan to reduce vehicular emissions to bring down the pollution levels, all the elite turned ferocious and launched a concerted social media campaign to discredit the government.
The car-owning elite, who control most of the institutions, possess an overwhelmingly strong voice, and with it, they can even manufacture consent in favor of their car culture. On the other hand, the car-less poor, who are voiceless, become mute spectators to the progressive shrinkage of their bicycling and walking space.
The governments in India, whether it is the union or the state governments, always claim themselves being pro-poor and don’t leave any opportunity to harp on social justice. However, in practice, they pave way for private vehicles, especially cars, in the name of promoting automobile industry, which grabs public spaces undemocratically and causes irreparable damage to the environment and the health of the people. It is time the governments changed their policies to promote safe, sustainable, affordable and reliable transportation facilities to ensure the smooth and hassle-free mobility of all sections of the society. And, the task invariably involves putting public transportation first and cars last.