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The Technological Tourist Goes to Mexico

A VW drives down Calle Primera in Ensenada.

A VW drives down Calle Primera in Ensenada.

Studying history of technology for the past three years has gradually but inexorably changed the way I perceive the world around me. I now think about my surroundings technologically, especially when I visit a new place. I focus on the technology I see in the place, rather than its aesthetics—as any visitor could rightly be expected to do. Because of this, I take some rather unusual vacation snaps, focusing on such mundane technological subjects as bridges, factories, transmission lines, bicycles, and manhole covers.

A recent excursion to Ensenada, in the Mexican state of Baja California, illustrates this phenomenon well. During this trip, I was particularly impressed not by the differences between Mexico and the USA, but by the similarities. Looking at the built environment, I saw that in northern Baja, Mexicans had chosen similar solutions to problems as Americans had north of the border. Contrary to Anglo-American stereotypes that Mexicans are impoverished and rural, I saw that many of the people in Baja drove SUVs on well-made roads and frequented chain convenience stores (particularly the ubiquitous Oxxo).

The SUVS, roads, and convenience stores point to a high level of economic and technological development, much higher than in other parts of the world. On average, though, Mexicans are much less economically prosperous than their neighbors to the north. In some cases, then, they have had to seek solutions that are not capital-intensive. A few things I saw in Mexico reminded me of India; in both countries, restricted resources have forced people to adopt similar solutions to similar problems—even though these people live on opposite sides of the world from each other. Here are some examples:

Hand-lettered signs

In the USA, hiring a painter to produce a simple sign would be more expensive than having one made in a factory. In both Mexico and India, the reverse is often the case.

Hand-lettered signs on the Ensenada beach (left), and in the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi (right).

Hand-lettered signs on the Ensenada beach (left), and in the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi (right).

Roadside eateries

In India, dhabas are simple roofed structures with few or no walls, where food is prepared and sold on the cheap. I do not know if there is a similarly concise name for the structures in Mexican Spanish. These roadside eateries in both countries save on construction and energy costs; they are a less capital-intensive approach to fast food than the American approach of fully climate-controlled buildings.

Old cars, like new

Mexico’s equivalent to the long-lived Hindustan Ambassador is the Volkswagen Beetle, which was produced in Mexico until 2003, long after the original lines in Germany had closed. Mexican Beetles, some with aftermarket modifications, are a common sight in Ensenada.

One of many Mexican VWs that I saw and photographed.

One of many Mexican VWs that I saw and photographed.

Concrete

Mexicans and Indians don’t just use concrete to make roads and buildings; they use it for everything they want to make, ranging from monuments to trash cans.

Concrete heroes: the Indian (non-nonviolent) freedom fighter Bhagat Singh (left), and the Father of Mexico, Miguel Hidalgo (right).

Concrete heroes: the Indian (non-nonviolent) freedom fighter Bhagat Singh (left), and the Father of Mexico, Miguel Hidalgo (right).

Horn Please

“Hamara Bajaj” - mudflap for a Bajaj scooter.

“Hamara Bajaj” – mudflap for a Bajaj scooter.

On an afternoon walk in an undeveloped forest area just outside of Jaipur this summer, I found a small souvenir of Indian technology: a hard-rubber scooter mudflap, with the words “Hamara Bajaj” and “Horn Please” molded on it.1 This is one of many examples I have seen of vehicles, or parts of vehicles, asking for the use of signaling devices. Variations on this theme include “Horn Do,” “Awaz Do” (“awaz” is Hindi for “sound” or “voice”), and “Use dipper [turn indicator] at night.”

Traffic on an Indian road may be chaotic, but it is not completely disorganized. There is an order—and it revolves around the use of the horn.

The sound of vehicle horns is the main element of the background noise of an Indian city. Horn sounds vary widely, from flat tones to trills to tunes. In most part of my home country, the United States, horns are mainly used in anger. My own Toyota Corolla has such a wimpy horn sound that I am embarrassed to use it. But in India, horns are used constantly as a signaling method. Vehicles tend to drive toward the center of roads, where the pavement is better. If a faster vehicle approaches from behind, the driver honks to announce his approach. If the way is clear, the slower vehicle honks back in response, then pulls over and sometimes waves the faster vehicle forward. Every type of vehicle takes part in this signaling system, because every form of transportation—from pedestrian on up—joins the traffic flow on the left side of the road.

Horns have other uses too. I was once in a taxi van when the driver overshot his turn off of the busy Tonk Road in Jaipur. Rather than circling around or finding a different route, he simply put his vehicle in reverse and backed up to his turn, blasting his horn all the way.

Traffic flow in India is more flexible than the regimented, linear procession of vehicles on most American roads. Lane lines and center-stripes, where they exist, are suggestions. A road with three marked lanes might have five lanes of traffic weaving in and out of each other. Except where solid medians prohibit it, traffic will often spill across the center-line onto the right side of the road. And even where a median is in place, it is not an impermeable barrier. If a scooter or rickshaw driver can negotiate a shortcut that will take him on the right side of the road, he will.

The point I want to make is that traffic customs in India work, even though they might seem chaotic and anarchical to a western (especially American) visitor. Traffic in India works by rules, which just happen to be more flexible than the rules in the West.

But let us not romanticize Indian traffic either. According to the World Health Organization, low- and middle-income countries—such as India—have considerably worse traffic safety records than high-income countries. More than 90% of the world’s traffic fatalities occur in these countries, even though these countries have less than half of the world’s vehicles.2 A comparison of the United States and India will show that, although the US has a slightly higher per-capita rate of fatal road accidents than India,3 the per-vehicle rate in India is much higher than in the United States. There are 145 traffic deaths for every 100,000 vehicles in India, compared to only 17 deaths for the same number of vehicles in the US.4

  1. “Hamara Bajaj” means “Our Bajaj”; it was a marketing campaign for the motor-scooters produced by the Indian industrial firm. Some of the Hamara Bajaj ads that aired on the state television network Doordarshan twenty years ago are now on YouTube. []
  2. World Health Organization, “Global Status Report on Road Safety: Time for Action,” http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_safety_status/2009/en/. []
  3. In 2006, there were 9 traffic deaths in India and 14 in the US, for every 100,000 people in each country. []
  4. See the individual country profiles for India and the United States. []

The Streets of Jaipur

Traffic on Jawaharlal Nehru (JLN) Marg.

Traffic on Jawaharlal Nehru (JLN) Marg.

The streets of Jaipur, India’s eleventh-largest city and capital of the state of Rajasthan, swarm with traffic. On the broad boulevards that outline the city, bicycles, motorcycles, and three-wheeler rickshaws mingle with four-wheeler cars, trucks, and buses. On the margins of the roads, other forms of transport head toward their destinations: pedestrians, cycle-rickshaws, horse tongas, and the occasional camel cart.

I find the traffic of Jaipur fascinating. A wide variety of vehicles travel on the roads—vehicles large and small, old and new. Some are produced by fully-Indian companies such as Tata; others are produced by foreign-owned companies such as Hyundai, Toyota, and Chevrolet. Here are a few of the distinctive motor vehicles commonly seen on the streets of Jaipur:

Autorickshaws (three-wheelers)

Different types of rickshaws on a street in Jaipur.

Different types of rickshaws on a street in Jaipur.

Autorickshaws are three-wheeler taxis adapted from scooter technology. In India, three-wheeler taxis are a compact, economical form of transport, used for transporting people to specific places in cities and rural areas alike. The two most common brands of autorickshaw seen on the streets of Jaipur are Piaggio—the original producer of three-wheelers—and Bajaj, which initially produced Piaggios under license. All auto-rickshaws I have seen retain their scooter heritage with handlebar steering. Many of them have two-stroke engines and manual starters; some newer rickshaws have four-stroke engines and electric starters.

In their everyday use, autorickshaws are pressed into service for a variety of different tasks. In rural areas, they are often used to haul goods such as bags of rice. Their most important use, though, is transporting people. A typical Bajaj autorickshaw seats two passengers comfortably—and many more uncomfortably. Most rickshaws in Jaipur have a padded ledge behind the driver’s seat, which additional passengers can sit on if needed.

Hindustan Ambassador

A black Hindustan Ambassador.

A black Hindustan Ambassador.

Western journalists and car enthusiasts have spilled much ink in identifying the Hindustan Ambassador as the iconic car of India. I think that the Maruti 800 (see below) should now hold that title, as it has long since surpassed the Ambassador as the most common car on Indian streets. Nevertheless, the Ambassador is still a distinctively Indian car, and even in 2012, it is still commonly seen on the streets of Jaipur.

First produced in India in 1958, the Ambassador was based directly on an English car design, the Morris Oxford. Under Indian governmental regulations in the early independence period, auto-makers were allowed to import technical expertise only for the establishment of a production line, not for its modification to match technological changes. These regulations were intended to reduce India’s dependence on foreign technology. The result of these regulations, though, was that auto-makers such as Hindustan Motors in Calcutta (now Kolkata) produced their vehicles virtually unchanged for decades. Domestic demand for cars far exceeded supply, to such extent that waiting periods for a new Ambassador often exceeded two years. Many Ambassadors were bought by central, state, and local government officials, who used their connections to jump ahead in the waiting lists. Even to this day, the majority of Ambassadors driving the streets of Jaipur are white and have a red “Rajasthan Sarkaar” (Government of Rajasthan) license plate.

The Premier Padmini is another Indian car that was produced unchanged for years. Based on a Fiat design, it is smaller and boxier than the Ambassador. It never acquired the international prestige of the Ambassador, even though it was a more highly sought-after car in the pre-Maruti days.

A Premier Padmini spotted in Jaipur.

A Premier Padmini spotted in Jaipur.

Maruti 800

One of the many Maruti 800s based in Jaipur.

One of the many Maruti 800s based in Jaipur.

The Maruti 800 was the first automobile to enter into widespread (upper) middle-class ownership in India. The Maruti began life as the pet project of Sanjay Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi and heir-apparent to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. After Sanjay was killed in a plane crash in 1980, the Maruti company was dissolved and reconstituted as a public-sector company and a subsidiary of the Japanese auto-maker Suzuki. Suzuki imported the technical expertise to produce an up-to-date car, a capacity that the Indian auto industry did not have at the time. The first Maruti 800 rolled off the assembly line in late 1983, and within a few months, the company was producing a hundred cars a day. The Maruti 800 was—and still is—a commercial success, and Maruti Suzuki has gone on to produce other successful vehicles, such as the Omni minivan.

Since the introduction of the Maruti 800, other Indian-made cars, such as the Tata Indica, have successfully targeted the upper-middle-class Indian market. But the Maruti 800 got there first, and it is still the most common private vehicle on Jaipur’s streets.

Tata Nano

A white Tata Nano. The Nano comes in a variety of other colors, including orange.

A white Tata Nano. The Nano comes in a variety of other colors, including orange.

Tata, India’s largest industrial conglomerate, has stakes in a wide variety of industries, ranging from salt and bottled water to vacation homes. Tata is also one of India’s leading manufacturers of motor vehicles. The company produces most of the distinctive orange trucks that ply India’s roads, as well as many of the buses. In 2006, Tata set off to produce a rather different type of vehicle: the Nano. By producing a small, inexpensive four-seater car, Tata hoped to make the Nano accessible to the middle class, just as the Maruti 800 was the first automobile accessible to the upper-middle class. Tata announced that it would make its middle-class car available for the price of only one lakh (100,000) rupees (roughly US $2,000).

In its original goals, as the western press reported, Tata seems to have failed. The price of the Nano exceeds one lakh, and Indian consumers have shown that they would rather buy a nicer, more expensive car, than a cheap car. But let us not dismiss the Nano too quickly. Western news reports would have one believe that nobody bought the Nano. This has simply not been the case. The small cars are very much in evidence on the streets of Jaipur, driving down the street or parked outside of upper-middle-class homes.

References

  • Bhargava, R.C., with Seetha. The Maruti Story: How a Public Sector Company Put India on Wheels. Noida, India: Collins Business, 2010.
  • Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Sardar, Ziauddin. “The Ambassador from India.” In Autopia: Cars and Culture. Edited by Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr. London: Reaktion Books, 2002.

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