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Scootermobility

Motorcycles in the Ghat ki Gooni, Jaipur.

Motorcycles in the Ghat ki Gooni, Jaipur.

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.

Motorcycles waiting at a light on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Jaipur.

Motorcycles waiting at a light on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Jaipur.

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How many Qutb Minars is this?

The tallest pre-modern structure in India is Qutb Minar, a 238-ft (72 m) tower in southern Delhi. Qutb-ud-Din Aybak, the first sultan of Delhi, started building the tower in 1199. Several succeeding generations of rulers added to and modified the tower; it only reached its full height after Qutb-ud-Din’s death. Even the British tried to add their own cupola on the apex of the tower, but it did not match the aesthetic of the rest of the tower, so it came down in 1848. The British cupola now sits by itself on the landscaped lawns of the Qutb Minar complex. Qutb Minar and the surrounding area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Qutb Minar towers over surrounding ruins in south Delhi.

Qutb Minar towers over surrounding ruins in south Delhi.

Publications about Indian construction projects in the early-independence period often compared the new projects with pre-modern Indian monuments; Qutb Minar was a particularly popular item of comparison. Towers or tower-like structures invited comparisons most readily. The ventilation stack of Tarapur Atomic Power Station, India’s first nuclear powerplant, was 366 feet (112 meters) tall—much taller than the Qutb Minar,” as several publications noted.1 Qutb Minar was also used as a standard measuring stick for height for any structure. According to an article in Assam Information, “the height between the bottom of foundation and the top of the piers” of the Saraighat Bridge, the first permanent crossing of the Brahmaputra River, “it almost as much as the height of the Qutb Minar.”2 The winner in any early-independence period height competition was Bhakra Dam. Indian Recorder and Digest stated that the height of the dam, “which is the highest structure in Asia, is about three times that of the Qutab Minar.”3

This rhetoric established continuity with the pre-colonial past, but also attempted to transcend it. The colonial period had been a difficult time for India’s educated elites. Although they believed in their own country’s historic greatness, they also absorbed the western critiques of India as backward, underdeveloped, and imprisoned by tradition.4 Building dams, bridges, and nuclear powerplants was a way to recreate India’s past greatness, which had been lost during centuries of colonial domination. The new India’s greatness, though, would not be based on Indian tradition, but on western ideas and technology. The structures of independent India were bigger, and by implication better, than anything the Sultans of Delhi or the Mughals had been able to make. In the sources that I have read, nobody seemed to care that a concrete ventilation stack was not aesthetically comparable to an intricately-wrought red sandstone and white marble tower.

  1. “Tarapur: Gateway to the Nuclear Age,” Economic Studies 10 (1968), 421. []
  2. “Saraighat Bridge: A Boon to Assam,” Assam Information, November 1963, 20. []
  3. “Dedication of Bhakra Dam,” Indian Recorder and Digest, November 1963, 6. []
  4. Ashis Nandy explained the internalization of western ideas by Indian elites in a lecture I attended in Delhi on June 11, 2012. []
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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).

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