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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.

Black Friday, one decade later

Ten years ago today, on Friday, September 30, 2005, protest demonstrations in the Garo Hills of northeast India turned tragic when police forces of the central government fired their guns at the protesters. In the towns of Tura and Williamnagar, the police firings killed a dozen teenaged students. Ever since, this event has been known as Black Friday. To commemorate the unjust death of the protesters, people across the Garo Hills declare a general strike every September 30, closing schools and businesses for the day. (For more on Black Friday and its background, please see my post from three years ago.)

I first went to the Garo Hills six years ago, in 2009. The problems of political and economic marginalization, which underlay the September 2005 protests, were still very much in evidence in 2009. One positive aspect of the Garo Hills’ then-current political situation was that the area was at peace. In other parts of northeast India, minority groups had responded to their own marginalization by forming insurgencies to wage war against the Indian government. Six years ago, there were organized insurgencies in the Garo Hills, but they were not particularly active. For the most part, the Garo Hills were self-policing. Police authority was not much in evidence, because it wasn’t necessary.

Early in 2015, I returned to the Garo Hills, and I was disappointed to see that the security situation had deteriorated in the past five years. Insurgencies had stepped up their activities, declaring villages to be their territory. They extort, threaten, and sometimes even hurt and kill anyone with wealth or political power who does not support them. In response, the state and central governments have stepped up police presence in the Garo Hills. Armed officers patrol the weekly markets and accompany night buses driving into the hills.

Ten years after Black Friday, the political situation of the Garo Hills has only gotten worse. I do not know the best way for the people of the Garo Hills to make themselves healthy and prosperous, but I do know that threatening, kidnapping, or killing those with power is not the way forward.

Phones in the United States and India (part 2)

Compared to mobile phones, an even more recent arrival in India is the smartphone. In 2009, smartphones were unheard-of in the Garo Hills. I don’t remember ever seeing them anywhere I went in north and northeast India either. By 2013, smartphones were more in evidence in Jaipur when I spent the summer there, but more in TV ads than real life. Now in 2015, smartphones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. When I ride the Delhi Metro, half of the passengers are fiddling with smartphones, reading something in English, Hindi, or Punjabi, or playing a game. Apple iPhones are not as common in India as the USA, since most people don’t care to pay the premium price. The Samsung Galaxy is much more common as a prestige phone. There are also several indigenous brands not seen in the USA, such as Micromax.

What is remarkable to me about smartphones in India is that they are being adopted by a wide range of social classes. There is nothing remarkable about the privileged urban youth of India using smartphones in 2015, although I feel that they try too hard to prove that they have arrived in the twenty-first century by taking too many selfies and signing up for all of the social media services, and then posting all of those selfies, and anything else they think or do, on all of the services. They aren’t just using the usual suspects like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, but also services I’d never heard of before coming to India this time.

What I do find remarkable is that some manual laborers and service workers, like the maid who works in the house where I stay in Delhi, have started using smartphones. Non-smartphones have not been marginalized in the market as definitively as they have been in the West, but it is clear to me that for certain classes of Indians, smartphones are now the only socially acceptable option. This is not the case for lower classes, but it is worth noting that lower-income groups now have access to the same technology that the privileged classes are using for status symbols.

Mobile phones gave many members of lower-income and rural populations access to their own phones for the first time. In the same way, smartphones are making the Internet more widely accessible. In the Garo Hills in 2009, when I wanted to check my e-mail, I had to hitch a ride to the nearby town and pay Rs. 40 an hour to use a slow, unreliable cell-network connection at a computer services shop. Sometimes I would arrive and the power would be out, or the manager would be away, or the connection would inexplicably not be working. This was an all-afternoon outing, and I could only make it once every week or two. I went to the effort to access the Internet because I had already become reliant upon it from my life in the West. For those who had never used the Internet before, it wasn’t likely that they were going to go out of their way to start using it there. Now, the growing number of smartphone users can access the Internet whenever they want, without having to go anywhere.

It is much too early to make any conclusions about what all of this means for Indian society. Are smartphones an egalitarian technology, like non-smartphones? TV ads that show sequestered women in rural Haryana using their smartphones to access educational resources would have you believe so. Of course, TV ads playing on the same channels also claim that “Love and Nourish” soap will give you perfect skin like Kareena Kapoor, and “Juzt Jelly” candies will give you the strength of the children’s cartoon hero Chhota Bheem. In the case of smartphones, though, this technology may indeed give economically disadvantaged people access to knowledge resources that were too expensive to access beforehand. Or smartphones might prove to be just a passive form of entertainment, opening the way for huge sections of the Indian population to become addicted to the next “Candy Crush.” I suspect that smartphones in India are already on their way to proving themselves as both useful tools and useless toys.

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