Our Finance Minister recently blamed the millennials and cab aggregator apps combine for the slowdown in India’s auto sector. This unwarranted comment could have passed but R.C. Bhargava, former Chairman, Maruti Suzuki decided to second it. Bhargava, who nurtured Maruti Suzuki should have known better! Either he was trying to please someone out of the way, or he was just blind to the reality that India is unfriendly when it comes to car ownership.
I love driving, especially long distances to remote places. Driving to lesser-known destinations is my idea of fun and adventure, and my two-year car ownership and past 25000 Km of driving in North and Western part of India, has taught me a few things about car ownership in India—which has curtailed my enthusiasm for long drives.
There is no method for toll collection: is it based on distance or vehicle size? There is an unusually high number of tolls in Rajasthan while driving towards Gujarat (one toll booth for almost every 50–60 Km!). Some toll roads are not toll worthy. Tolled roads are not patrolled, maintained, fenced and access restricted. How long will a toll booth collect money? Is there a financial goal, or is it forever? Where is the toll money going when the road is not even being maintained?
For some strange reason, Hindu holy cows are forever on the Indian roads. I fail to understand the logic of cattle, especially cows, lounging on the Indian roads. If the sacred cows have to be on the roads, then there should be a separate cow/cattle lane, which should be properly fenced, so that they do not come on to the main highway. In Rajasthan, some toll roads have thick vegetation growing on the central median where cattle congregate to feed and cows, goats and bulls have been seen stepping off the median to cross the road with no care for the oncoming traffic. Driving at 100–120, close to the central median, is a risky proposition—as the cattle cannot be seen, and it forces the drivers to stay on the left of the road to avoid hitting cattle stepping onto the highway from the central median inadvertently.
On the highways, it is a common sight to see tractors, cyclists, motorcyclists, etc., driving on the wrong side of the road. The chances of an accident are exponentially high at night when vehicles with defective or no headlights drive on the wrong side of the road. Most of the toll roads except expressways are not fenced off, as a result, whenever the highways go past a village, there is a gap in the median to allow people, cattle, mopeds, tractors, trucks, cars crossing to go either side.
Ideally, the highways should be elevated in those sections so that the local and interstate highway traffic are separated, but instead, there are multiple signs before approaching an intersection stating “accident-prone zone ahead”. Since the road construction engineers knew it was an accident-prone zone, why didn’t they elevate the highway at that section? This problem has been noticed all across India; in fact, this is a classic case of poor design. Whoever designed the roads, did not bother to elevate the sections near villages and towns to save cost.
In spite of the road signs written in Hindi asking the truckers to stay on the left, truckers drive all over the road, forcing other vehicles to overtake between the trucks, on the left and right. Some highly adventurous motorcyclists on their newly-acquired superbikes have a dangerous habit of overtaking another overtaking vehicle, with little or no margin for error. Many drivers and riders have little driving sense: they never use indicators before turning, slowing down or stopping without warning, they park vehicles at a curve, or wherever or whenever they like with little thought for the inconvenience they are causing to other drivers.
Driving on the hill stations of India like Himachal and Uttarakhand require specialized skills, which only locals seem to possess. Recently, while driving down from Landour to Dehradun, I was forced to the extreme left by a car which came bearing down straight at me; I nearly collided with a scooter, which was trying to overtake me on the left. Full-sized buses, overloaded vehicles carrying construction materials are a menace to motorists, especially on extremely narrow mountain roads, where I had been forced to reverse for about 250 metres with a sheer drop of about 1000 feet on one side.
Night driving in India, especially on the highways is a strict no unless it is a dire emergency. At night, apart from all the factors listed above, there is an added problem of high beams and multiple neon headlights used by truckers which blind the oncoming drivers.
Somewhere before Jaipur, after a toll booth, I was stopped by a group of policemen and asked for documents, and my vehicle was checked. What unnerved me was the unfriendly and hostile manner in which I was searched. I am uncomfortable giving away my mobile number to strangers as it is linked to various online services, but I was not allowed to proceed unless I parted with my mobile number. This has forced me to get a sim without internet link and not linked to online services to give it to policemen who stop me on the highways. Unmanned, zig-zag police barricades which have long since served their purpose, continue to adorn highways slowing traffic to a crawl. All this after paying a toll!
The ever-increasing fuel cost is the ultimate dampener to vehicle ownership. If all the above factors fail to dampen the enthusiasm, then this surely does it.
Has Mr Bhargava or Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman ever applied for a driving license like a common man? Have they been given the run around like I was given? Go here, go there, come tomorrow, stand in line to get the form, fill the form. When the form is filled, stand in line to submit it. If the form is right, something or the other is wrong. When the same form is submitted through a tout by paying several times the asking amount, everything works like magic, and the so-called intractable problems get sorted out.
I thought driving around to see India, the way I always wanted to, would be fun, but it is anything but that. There are too many problems, and in spite of all the problems listed, it is my love for driving that keeps me going. There are not many like me, but I know a few who love to drive. Owning a car is not the “in thing”; it is a question of “affordability”. When I can afford to hire a Mercedes with a driver, why buy it? Blame it on the millennials, donkeys, cows, fuel cost or whatever, but the fact that “it is not worth owning a car with all the hassles associated with it” has come to bite the government.
I wonder if Mr Bhargava or Mrs Sitharaman have driven around India like I do, or tried owning a car, a license, maintaining it, driving it, parking it, paying the high cost of fuel with a budgeted income. Instead of blaming the auto sector, the government should look at itself and start undoing the wrongs. For starters, the government must remove all the toll booths in India, except the toll at the expressways, clear the cattle off the road, police the highways to force truckers to stay on the left, levy high fines on those driving on the wrong side. These four steps alone will go a long way in making India a car-owner-friendly country. Other remedial measures should happen in due course.
My car dealership often calls me and asks, “Sir, on a scale of 1–10, how will you rate our service?” I always give them 10—because I have to face them again. Blaming the millennials statement can, at best, fetch two on a scale of 10.