Friday, May 30, 2008

Indian Infrastructure: Traffic, Electrical Power, and Garbage

The three things that everyone seems to complain about in Indian cities (and Bangalore is no exception) are the congested streets and roads, power outages, and garbage that accumulates nearly everywhere.

The streets are clogged. Not long ago, the classic Ambassador (which you can still see in the old Bollywood movies on TV here) was the only car available. Now compact cars, especially hatchbacks, predominate with Maruti, Hyundai and Tata Motors the most popular brands. Utility vehicles and SUVs are also available. Buses, trucks, auto rickshaws, bicycles, and two wheelers (scooters, small capacity motorcycles and mopeds) add to the chaos. In 2002, more than 50,000 new cars were bought in Delhi alone. And the growth is just beginning. In January, 2008, Tata Motors introduced their Nano, billed as a “one lakh car.”($2,000.)

India reportedly has one of the highest accident rates in the world. Bangalore’s local newspaper, The Deccan Herald, reported yesterday that there were 5,091 non- fatal accidents in 2007 and 667 involving fatalities. Crossing the street can be a dangerous undertaking. The other day as we were walking near our place, we turned quickly when we heard tires screeching. A scooter driver was under the front of a small pick up truck, his helmet thrown off. I was sure he was dead, but seconds later his head popped out, he grabbed his helmet, put it back on, and rode off. The truck left the scene just as quickly before the onslaught of a crowd (inevitable whenever there is an accident) had time to form or the police had time to get there.

On a previous visit to Bangalore the three-wheeler I was riding in was forced into the median strip by a car driven by a professional driver and carrying some businessmen. For a terrifying second we both saw it coming but my driver, in a much smaller and lighter vehicle, was powerless to do anything about the situation. By the time the car driver realized what was happening, the auto rickshaw was crushed against the concrete median. I felt so sorry for my woeful looking driver, who probably had to make reparations to the vehicle’s owner, that I left him some extra money before leaving the scene.

Power outages are so frequent that all companies, hotels, and shopping malls have generators that kick in whenever the power goes off. When I was in New Delhi a couple of months ago, my friend Terri and I were captivated by the clumps of cables draped across the exterior of buildings everywhere.

The apparent lack of a system for trash collection is the toughest thing for me to accept. Even a nice neighborhood will have a vacant lot contaminated by all types of garbage, often with a lone cow nibbling away at it. I have seen trucks picking up garbage from some of these lots, so there must be a system, obviously one that the western mind can’t comprehend. The good news is that quite a bit of recycling seems to come out of those pick ups. I was impressed to find a family operated recycling center where bales of magazines and newspapers were waiting for collection in my neighborhood.

On a TV news spot the other day they reported that the garbage pickers are so unhappy with their jobs (for good reason) that they resort to drinking alcohol daily, a pretty desperate solution for folks who are forbidden to imbibe.

There may be efforts afoot to solve the waste problem but we don’t see much evidence of them. Plastic bags are given most places, although some upscale shops are now using lovely paper handled carry bags that can be used practically and aesthetically. When we entered the supermarket the other day with a big shopping bag we planned to pack our groceries in, the security guard required that we leave it behind in the bag check.

In contrast, in parts of the “primitive” state of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s Northeast, plastic bags have been outlawed and market purchases are wrapped in newspaper. The big difference is population density. Arunachal Pradesh has 13 people per square kilometer while in a large city like Delhi it is over 9,000. Indian’s cities will have to work hard to solve this and its other infrastructure problems as the train called progress has roared out of the station and is rapidly picking up speed.

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