Car Revolution or Food Revolution?
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 26 Jan 2012 5 Comments

Just released data by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute says that a quarter of the world’s hungry, 230 million to be precise, are in India, going to sleep each day on an empty stomach. These stomachs are not even half-filled!  Our food situation is worse than that of Pakistan and Nepal, and even far off Sudan. The only comparable situation is in war-torn Congo or Chad. In a shame list of the hungry, we are 63rd among the 87 worst hit by food crisis.

This is the ranking of India in the Global Hunger Index, prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute. With 21% of the population undernourished, 44% of the under 5 year old children underweight, and 7% of them dying before they reach the age of 5, there is nothing that India can be proud of after 65 years of independence. Right to food is the most fundamental right, yet we have some agricultural messiahs harping ad nauseaum of self sufficiency in food thanks to the green revolution

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is thinking of a second green revolution in India, and the Director General of the dubious International Rice Research Institute of Philippines is camping in Patna to organize this second green revolution (read genetically modified rice) to be introduced in this impoverished vast State with very fertile Terai soils.

We are only recovering from the environmental fallout of the first green revolution – the degraded soils, vanished bio diversity due to monoculture of rice and wheat, dried aquifers due to excessive water mining, and hugely polluted  due to excessive application of chemical fertilizers, making water no more potable in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, the cradle of the first green revolution. This is  sufficient testimony to the success of the first green revolution; now the GM crops invasion is waiting in the wings! 

This article is not about the impending second green revolution, but about a car revolution which, if it goes out of control, will stifle India in less than ten years. There will be an acute demand for our remaining available land, meant for agriculture, to construct highways and sub ways. I am writing about the consequences of the auto exhibition in New Delhi in the second week of January.

Of all the persons who spoke on the occasion, Mr. Alan Roger Mulally, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ford Motors, is the happiest man. He looks at India with tremendous fondness and has concluded that India will be ahe tremendous auto market in coming years. Sweet music to the 250 million middle class with huge disposable income, salivating to steer the wheels of cars like Ford, Mercedez Benz, BMW, and what not. Never mind the 230 million hungry Indians who can be thrown to the wolves. The Indian way of compassion and tolerance?

Here are the grim statistics. In 2011 India added a total of 1,42,37,179 (roughly 1.5 crore) cars to its already congested roads. This does not include the number of cars registered by the Regional Transport Offices spread along the length and breadth of the country, most of which are not digitized. The actual figure could be much higher. The following is the break-up:

Tamil Nadu: 17, 18, 455

Uttar Pradesh: 16, 80, 938

Maharashtra: 16,73, 542

Gujarat: 10,89,115

Andhra Pradesh: 10, 03,710

Delhi territory: 4, 66,705 

China is the biggest importer and manufacturer of cars in Asia and Beijing, the capital, adds 1500 cars daily to its already congested roads. Delhi is not far behind with 1000 cars per day. There is a very grim scenario unfolding in India, especially in metros like Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad.

The car explosion on India’s roads is not a recent phenomenon. Ever since the economy opened up, more and more cars are being added each day. Take the smaller cities. In 2010, a group of 150 businessmen in Aurangabad, Gujarat, placed an order for 150 Mercedez Benz cars, a sort of world
record, a sign of the flush of cash and disposable income in the hands of the rich and the middle class. On average a Mercedez Benz will cost around Rs 30 lakhs and can go up to Rs 75-80 lakhs depending on the model.  So, you can imagine the volume of cash flowing on India’s roads!

What are the immediate serious consequences of this car revolution? First and foremost is the heavy road congestion. India’s roads are not made to cater to this burgeoning car numbers.  During peak hours in the metros, one has to be inside a car idling, wasting expensive petrol and adding to environmental pollution, sometimes for hours on end, to move even a few meters of road distance. The distance between the airport and the heart of the city in Bangalore is 32 kilometers, but if you are caught in a traffic jam, it would take not less than 2 hours to get to the airport from the centre of the city. You would spend more than an hour to get out of the main city centre (depending on from where you commenced your road journey) on to the highway.

More than the congestion on the roads, it is the space to be found for parking that adds to the problem and makes things worse. Go to any railway station, even in a tiny state like Kerala, in cities like Kochi or Calicut. One would find rows and rows of two wheelers and four wheelers parked the length of almost a kilometre in front of the stations. And, if you are caught up in a traffic snarl, be sure you will miss the train.

This is increasingly seen even in smaller towns in this tiny state of India. In some of these small cities, roads built by the British centuries ago, capable of taking just a total of about 1 lakh plus population, are now congested by double the number of cars during peak hours. The other serious consequence of this heavy automobile congestion is the resultant air pollution.

The emission from automobiles is one of the serious reasons for global warming, apart from environmental pollution, making air so bad, loaded with heavy particulate matter. Delhi’s skies are the most polluted. The introduction of the CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) buses have brought this havoc down to some extent, but the problem is of such gigantic proportions that it will not easily improve.

With India’s auto sector occupying 7th position in the world, the situation is only going to deteriorate, unless serious planning is done now. According to consultancy firm Ernst & Young, India’s auto sector (passenger vehicle production and sales), is expected to grow between 14 and 16% by 2021, reaching over 9-10 million units annually. The above cited example of the purchase of 150 Mercedez Benz cars in Aurangabad, Gujarat, is a classic example of this luxury hungry segment of Indian population. In the auto sector, the luxury car segment is a billion dollar market annually in India.

To combat the growing menace of explosion of cars on Indian roads, we should first and foremost install a legal cap on the use of cars for a period of time. In Singapore, for instance, cars which are more than five years old do not get a roadworthy certificate. Punjab is following with a 15-year rule for a roadworthy licence.

Second, impose a heavy tax on diesel cars. This will be a double-edged weapon. It will reduce environmental pollution and dissuade the rich and very rich to buy such brands (almost all top class brands have both diesel and petrol versions, the diesel version being more expensive and the rich invariably go in for that to economise). This will also reduce the burden on New Delhi for diesel subsidy. The diesel subsidy is mainly meant for farmers and public transport. Let it go for that and not to subsidise the transport of the already rich, as New Delhi is currently doing.

Third, have paid parking in railway stations even in small towns. Fourth, as 10% of the total fleet of Indian cars are concentrated on roads in metro cities, focus on this segment. Provide a mode of transport that takes care of work and education which alone adds up to 70% of the total number of passenger car trips in any major city. Peak period traffic in mega cities needs to be staggered to eight hours, at the most. Finally, there is a need to provide road links in a manner that will discourage people to drive in uni-direction (same direction) towards the central part of the city. All this calls for careful road planning strategy. Just cutting down trees which provide the best cover against environmental pollution and widening the road or creating two tier roads is not the only solution.

Last but not the least, invoke a policy of freezing the number of cars manufactured or sold. Western countries have succeeded to a large extent in this direction. This author, who has spent a number of years professionally in Europe, has seen university campuses where only the President of the University comes in a Mercedez Benz. Even Nobel Prize winners travel up and down in cycles. Germany and The Netherlands are the best examples. In fact, the university campuses forbid any big/or small four wheeler coming inside its boundaries.

This is in sheer contrast to some of our universities where, when a new incumbent gets the post of Vice Chancellor, invariably through some or other connections, the first thing he or she does is to order a brand new sedan. Mercez Benzes or BMWs are out, because of the price tag, but other glossy models are available in the market.  

The author is an international Kerala-based agricultural scientist; he can be reached at

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