Tuesday, January 30, 2007

On the Road... without Jack

Throughout the past four weeks in India, it has been hard not to notice the highways, the cars, and the lifestyles that straddle the road. Roads in India are more ecosystem than transportation conduits, with families, settlements, and full lives lived out on their shoulders. In Chennai we saw countless families cuddled under blankets aside busy streets. We saw vendors covering their products with tarp for the night, and then settling down aside their goods for the night. The roads are never alone, and it's difficult, impossible really, to find a solitary moment irrespective of the time, day or night.

Despite the fact that 1 million new cars are being added to the roads each year, the total number of registered car owners is still less than one percent of India's population. Until a few years back the only cars available in India were Indian-made Ambassadors or Italian-made Fiats, though now virtually all models are available. Though Ambassadors are still ubiquitous, the India-made Tata Indica seems to be a rising star on the budget, but nicer-than-rickshaw level of personal car.

I spoke with an auto-rickshaw driver in Hospet, Karnataka who told me that he essentially rents his rickshaw for 140 rupees per day. He drives all night, and any money he makes above and beyond the 140 rupees he pays out is profit. He also has to pay for petrol, however.

Though there is a newly developing super-highway system in the works, linking Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, and Chennai in a giant rectangle of pavement, it has brought with it social and political issues. Rarely does the road allow pedestrians with animals to cross. Traffic is dangerous. With the construction has come a corresponding spread of HIV moving with the migrant workers across South India. While the highway's construction is a necessary improvement to inter-state infrastructure and concurrently facilitates auto sales by making car transport easier, it's also the harbinger of many less than salubrious externalities.

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