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Village on wheels

Rural India is catching up


CATTLE & CARS: Despite roads in India's villages not being up to the mark, more disposable incomes have ensured brisk sale of cars in rural markets

City planners might agonise about the traffic situation getting out of hand in state capitals, but small towns, with a 40 per cent growth in vehicle acquisition, are rapidly outgunning metropolitan India. And, yes, reporting more accident-related deaths too.

Even as both the Centre and state governments put all their might in finding a solution to transport issues plaguing urban spaces, recent reports indicate the problem may just have moved elsewhere - to our mofussil areas. Vehicular growth has received a major push in small-town India with even the remotest village getting connected with concrete roads under the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojna (PMGSY). The state governments' failure to provide proper public transport systems has only added to the rising number of privately-owned vehicles.

Experts say the more worrisome fact is that all the old commercial and personal vehicles, mostly outdated and defective, that Indian cities phase out are finding their way to smaller towns and villages. "It's not just two-wheelers that have registered huge growth in rural areas. Even light motor vehicles (LMVs) used to ferry men and material have increased exponentially. Earlier, their annual growth was only 10 per cent, but now it is almost 40 per cent, " says S P Singh of the Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training (IRTFT).

But even as vehicular traffic in rural areas is on the rise, not enough is being done to make roads safer in these parts. According to a road accident-death report prepared by the transport research wing of the highways ministry, the total number of accidents in 2008 in rural areas was more than that in urban areas. While the former accounted for 53 per cent (2, 56, 695), the latter had only 47 per cent (2, 28, 009). Rural areas also had more of the fatalities, about 59. 4 per cent. Similarly, the number of persons injured was greater in rural areas, at about 58. 7 per cent.

More disposable income is an obvious reason for this, say experts. "In urban areas, people who owned two-wheelers have now got cars, and in rural areas cyclists have graduated to twowheelers. With automobile manufacturers coming out with more lucrative financing schemes, vehicular growth in rural areas has got a major push, " says H R Suri, an urban planner.

Though there is no official estimate of what category of vehicle has the highest share in rural areas, those working with the road transport and highways ministry say two-wheelers are far ahead of four-wheelers and three-wheelers. "Since there is no proper public transport system for our huge rural population, smaller vehicles are growing in these areas. The rural population also wants to be part of the growth story of India, " says a highway ministry official.

Besides two-wheelers, the big favourite, the other category of vehicles which has seen a spurt in growth is the tractor, and this despite landholdings reducing in rural areas. "This is because there is a huge market for such vehicles to cater to local transportation needs, " Singh says. Road safety experts says that while India's rural roads are witnessing a substantial growth in vehicular volume, neither the Centre and nor the states have done much to make these stretches safer.

"There is no enforcement of traffic rules in rural areas, " says Rohit Baluja, a member of United Nations Road Safety Collaboration (UNRSC). "Highway patrolling is missing in the country since the local administration does not consider this a priority;all planning and programme-related measures are urban-centric. " He adds that even policies aimed at spreading awareness about road safety are for the urban population. "We talk of zebra crossing, seat belts and signage. These are all urban issues. We need to pay equal attention to the state of roads and traffic in rural areas, " warns Baluja. "Or things will get worse. "

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