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Scootermobility

Media in the car-saturated West—especially in the USA—have watched with some hand-wringing as the middle classes of large Asian countries such as China and India have increasingly been buying cars. At least in India, though, cars have so far failed to catch on to the extent that they did a century ago in the USA. What have caught on are two-wheelers: motorcycles and motor scooters. The profusion of two-wheelers in India hasn’t attracted much attention in the West, but I believe it has had a bigger influence in making India the country it is today.

Seven years ago, I spent my first sojourn in India at a school in the rural East Garo Hills district of Meghalaya. All of the teachers lived in the campus compound. Out of twenty-off families, only two had any sort of personal mechanized transportation: the principal had a car (a Maruti 800), and one of the teachers had a Bajaj motor scooter. Everybody else got around by walking, catching buses on the other side of the river, piling into the school sumo when it went to market, or bumming rides from the one teacher with a scooter.

Five years later, when I went back to Meghalaya to visit, there was only one family that didn’t have a scooter or motorcycle, and the others were asking when they would get one too. One of the teachers who now rode everywhere on his motorcycle spoke wistfully of the old days when everybody used to walk all the time.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when Americans first started buying cars in large numbers, optimistic car advocates claimed that automobility would usher in a new democratic age, when citizens could drive wherever they pleased, free from the tyranny of the railroads. Although cars did lead to new dependencies—on oil companies, tire companies, and of course the auto manufacturers themselves—cars did allow Americans to be more mobile than ever before.

Something similar is happening in India, except more with scooters and motorcycles than with cars. Thanks to scootermobility, residents of both city and country can go more places with more ease than ever before. Whole families pile onto single bikes to go on picnics. Teenagers and twenty-somethings escape the parental gaze to hang out in waste areas or old ruins on the edge of town.

Alongside the perks, scooters and motorcycles also come with many of the same pitfalls as cars, such as polluted skies and people who never walk anywhere anymore. There are also three shortcomings that aren’t shared by cars, which should give the builders of 21st-century India pause. The first is minimal safety protections. Motorcycles can go as fast as cars, but they have no room for crumple zones or roll bars. A seatbelt on a motorcycle would not do anyone any good. Second, two-wheelers have the loudest, shrillest horns of any vehicles. On any given day, they do more to create urban India’s noise pollution problem than anything else. And third, two-wheelers can insinuate themselves into places that cars could never go, thus endangering pedestrians and generally trampling cities in new ways. The pleasant pedestrian promenade at Connaught Place in New Delhi becomes not so pleasant when you constantly have to worry about getting run over by a scooter.

Jugaad-spotting in eastern Rajasthan

The word “jugaad” has several meanings in the Hindi language. In some contexts, the word can mean informal or improvised repair of something. Another meaning of the word is the use of some object in a manner that the creators did not intend. When a mechanic uses shampoo in place of brake fluid, he is performing jugaad. When mustard oil cans are flattened out and shaped into the door of a hut, this too is jugaad.

In eastern Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh, “jugaad” has an additional definition: trucks that are produced by local craftsmen in village and town workshops, not in factories.

Jugaads do not have automobile engines. Instead, they use pumps, which were originally designed to draw water out of borewells to irrigate crops. The designers of the pumps did not intend for their products to be used in automobiles. But just as these pumps can draw water out of wells, they can also drive a vehicle.

I recently got the chance to take a close look at one of these pumps in its natural habitat, when I visited some friends’ village near the border of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. My friends took me to their fields outside of the village and showed me their pump, which was situated in the corner of a wheatfield. The pump did not have a starter motor; it was started by a hand crank that was stashed under some bushes. Once the pump started running, it began to shoot out a stream of clear, cool ground-water. It also produced a foul-smelling cloud of diesel fumes.

In addition to the pump-engines, jugaads are made of other parts gathered from various sources, including wheels, a steering wheel, and a radiator. Jugaads usually do not have any headlights or signaling lights. They never have license plates or registration papers. Since they are unregistered, the government cannot collect taxes on them. But even though they are unregistered, the government is aware of them, and has made laws about them on a district by district basis. Unregistered vehicles are technically illegal, but several district governments have decided that since jugaads are important in the agrarian economy of the district, jugaad production and use shall continue unimpeded. In eastern Rajasthan’s Dausa, Karauli, and Sawai Madhopur districts, jugaads are a common sight. They are especially evident in towns where farmers use them to bring their crops to market.

In other districts, jugaads nowhere to be seen. I have heard that they were banned in Bharatpur district two or three years ago after a jugaad crashed into a school bus, killing several children. The district council then understandably decided to ban jugaads for safety reasons. Jugaads are also rare sights in Jaipur district, and I have never seen even a single jugaad in Jaipur city. A co-passenger on a bus from Bharatpur to Jaipur once told me that there are no jugaads in Jaipur because the city government has banned them since their pump-engines produce so much pollution. As interesting as I find jugaads, I am glad they are not in Jaipur. The city’s traffic is bad enough with all of its cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, and especially motorcycles, not to mention bicycles and camel-carts.

(For a more detailed analysis of the multiple meanings of “jugaad,” please see my post “The Mystique of Jugaad.”)

The stick-shift minivan

In the USA, manual transmission or shift-shift automobiles are so uncommon that I make a comment whenever I get into a friend’s car that has a manual transmission. When automatic transmissions first started to sell in large numbers in the American market in the 1950s, manual transmissions became known as “standard transmission,” because automatic transmissions were more expensive and therefore comparatively uncommon. Nowadays, though, cars with automatic transmissions dominate the American roads so much that manual transmissions are no longer the market standard.

The introduction of automatic transmissions in the United States was one step in the de-skilling of driving. Other steps in the process have been the introduction of electric starters and, much later, GPS navigation. Driving is still a skill in the United States, but thanks in part to these technological changes, the learning curve is shallower now than it was before World War II.

Driving has been less de-skilled in India than in the United States. This does not mean that driving on Indian roads is more difficult than in America, although from my limited experience with driving in India I can say that is definitely the case. What I mean by this is that learning to drive is a steeper learning curve in India, and a greater portion of the drivers on the road are professionals. This is gradually changing, as more and more middle-class people are buying their own cars and driving them themselves. But the portion of professional drivers on the road in India is still much higher than in the United States, where the majority of drivers are amateurs.1

Partly because driving has been less de-skilled in India, automatic transmissions have never caught on.2 I have been told that cars with automatic transmissions exist in India, but I have certainly never seen one, after having spent the better part of two years in the country. The absolute dominance of manual transmissions has led to some unusual (from an American perspective) technological hybrids. My favorite is the Toyota Innova, a stick-shift minivan.

Minivans originated in the United States, with the first model, the Dodge Caravan, released in 1984.3 In the USA in the 1990s, minivans were the ultimate family car. As vehicles designed for busy moms and dads, minivans of course all had automatic transmissions. They also had plenty of space for kids and carseats, and absolutely zero sex appeal.

In India, minivans do not suffer from the same stigma of un-coolness. The Toyota Innova is the most common minivan on the Indian roads.4 Like every other car I have ever seen in India, Innovas all have manual transmissions. I suppose there must be some Indian soccer moms who haul their kids around in Innovas, but I have not encountered any. Most Innovas I have seen are not private cars. There are plenty of Innova taxis in the big cities. The Delhi Police have had Innovas outfitted with flashing lights, and they use these as interceptors. I have even heard that Indian-made Innovas have been exported to Afghanistan, where the US military used them – despite the confusion of driving on the right side of the road in a vehicle built to drive on the left.

  1. This is a general observation I have made, although I have no numbers to back up my claim. In Kolkata (Calcutta) in May of this year, I tried making a tally of vehicles with yellow license plates (commercial vehicles, including taxis) versus vehicles with white plates (private vehicles). The traffic was moving much too fast for an accurate count, but it appeared that private vehicles predominated slightly. Of course, not all of the private vehicles are driven by amateurs, as it is not uncommon for car owners to hire chauffeurs to do the driving for them. The portion of public and private vehicles on the road also varies in different parts of the country. Private vehicles are more common in the wealthier cities, but public vehicles predominate in poorer rural areas. []
  2. Another market where manual transmissions dominate is western Europe, although likely for different reasons. []
  3. The Smithsonian Institution has determined that the Dodge Caravan is historically significant. When the “America on the Move” gallery opened in 2003, it included a real early-model Caravan stuck in simulated Los Angeles freeway traffic. []
  4. Wikipedia identifies the Innova as a “compact multipurpose vehicle” rather than a minivan, but I do not make this distinction. []

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