Cars, Expressways and India

by Jagat on June 9, 2010

Today’s Times of India (TOI) contains several articles related to the car, so I thought I would just summarize what it says as a footnote to yesterday’s article.

On a somewhat positive note, in the paper’s main headline article, no doubt put there because of its potential to stir up controversy, urban development minister S. Jaipal Reddy is reported suggesting a congestion tax to cure car mania in an effort to turn India’s “car-crazy upwardly mobile” classes to public transport. This pious hope would help reduce congestion and emissions. The model would be Singapore, “a city much admired by the same class.”

“Roads in the country are extremely cruel to pedestrians. The foot overbridges are so intimidating that people prefer to jump and cross the roads rather than use them. These are small things which have to be taken into consideration,” Reddy said, pointing out that more than 1 lakh people are killed in road accidents in the country every year.

Perhaps that voice in the wilderness trying to promote public transportation in large cities like Delhi, the Indian Center for Science and the Environment (CSE), has been able to catch the minister’s ear. And it is good that not all thinking about cars and traffic is blind planning for more roads, flyovers and expressways.

But the rest of the news indicates business as usual: First of all, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (Siam) announced a new record monthly sales figure for the month of May. The number was 128,851 new cars sold, a 30% increase over the previous high. April figures were close to 150,000. Two-wheeler sales also were in the vicinity of 725,000.

Siam director Vishnu Mathur said, “Our economy is growing very rapidly. The per capita income has almost touched $1000 and that is a magical figure, which is the threshold for automobile demand.”

India’s first expressway, Mumbai-Poona.

This was accompanied by followups on a central government Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MRTH) announcement that a plan has been put in place to build toll expressways crisscrossing India by the year 2022. The length of these highways will be in excess of 18,000 km. The roads will be built with enclosures on both sides to prevent slow-moving vehicles from entering them.

At present, India has only 200 kilometers of expressway, which is less than 0.2% of the entire national highway (NH) network. Haryana and UP are currently building three others: the KMP, Yamuna and Ganga Expressways.

“We are considering whether a solar lighting system can be extensively used for illumination. The expressway network must be on a green model,” said a MRTH official.

The Times Op-ed page also has a semblance of debate, with the “Times View” saying that highways will lead to “tomorrow’s prosperity,” and the counterview by Amrith Lal, who calls the plan “dangerous and elitist.”

The Times holds up the Chinese model, where 60,000 km of superhighway were built between 1990 and 2008, stimulating the country’s tremendous growth. The columnist also argues that the Chinese model shows that they:

  • used 40% less land than conventional roads to move goods and people
  • cut down on vehicular emissions by a third
  • cut down on accidents, also by a third

Overpasses and intersections at appropriate junctions can solve the potential problem of dividing communities.

Amrith Lal argues that the whims of the elites in a position to pay pricey tolls are being prioritized over the needs and conveniences of local populations. He suggest focusing on improving and augmenting the railway system, which could be upgraded to meet the needs of the growing economy. It will help more people, move more freight and people than the highways ever could. Moreover, existing roads would have reduced congestion if traffic regulations were better at enforcing laws.

It seems that Amrith Lal is speaking to the wind, as the readers of the Times of India will not pay much heed to his appeal to improve the current inadequate transport system. Whatever the long term costs of the car culture, India is clearly committed to this way of development and there is not much that will change it.

No amount of appeals to global warming, the cost of petrol, petitions or people lying across bulldozer paths and fresh asphalt is going to stop this juggernaut. In twenty years perhaps there will be efficient electric vehicles or other ways to keep such a highway system operative and functional, and environmentally less destructive. But clearly, no one has an alternative to this model in their plans to create a modern economy in India.

But our main concern is with the unique case of Vrindavan and other pilgrimage towns in India. The point here is not to stop progress or the advent of motor vehicles. Nor is it a simple question of preserving local community life, though that is a point of connection.

The real point is that progress should not mean wholesale destruction of important heritage towns like Vrindavan. There are hundreds and hundreds of cities in India where a highway crisscrossing the haphazard constructions of uncontrolled urban expansion will not have a great negative effect, but Vrindavan is not merely some urban community like any other.

Vrindavan is a tirtha. Its function is religious. It is meant to be an oasis from materialism, not just another chapter in India’s development story, “The Long March to Prosperity.” Vrindavan absolutely must be developed, but developed in a way that preserves the value of the temple architecture, the ghats, the Yamuna River, the kunjas, the trees and greenery, the natural and devotional beauty of its many holy sites.

More than anything, this development must proceed in the consciousness of the sacred nature of the town. That means that economics must take a back seat to preservation and enhancement of the atmosphere.

The local people must be sensitized to the fact that this heritage, this environment and this atmosphere is the lifeblood of their economy, and not the hotels, malls and amusement parks that will be built by carpetbaggers from Delhi and elsewhere.

Some sanity has to be brought into the development plans for Vrindavan. Perhaps when this first bit of construction is finished and the horror starts to become apparent, all those shop owners, ashram and temple owners and ordinary citizens who thought this was progress will become sensitized to the blow that Vrindavan has received as a sacred site of pilgrimage.

As is so often the case, so many will come to loudly close the garage door after the cars have left.

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