More of the Same

Auto-Expo has seldom looked forward. It is time for a change

Auto-Expo week in Delhi is on us again. Invitations are already pouring in for a variety of functions, including a variety of car/bike of the year awards, where everybody will win, with multiple organisations claiming to provide ranks and grades for everything rolling on inflated wheels, all nicely coordinated so that timings and dates do not clash. Much fun, good food, excellent wine will flow.

The venues are packed with shiny cars and bikes as well as well-heeled and shiny people. This is the right time of the year in Delhi for all this. With any luck, the sun will be out during the day, making Pragati Maidan a very pleasant afternoon interlude for a week. The crowds will head for the cars, bikes, buses and trucks—the real business will be done by the vast number of component and other supplier stalls, and seminars as well as conferences will give golden opportunities to all to network and schmooze. The Chinese, as is increasingly the case at such fairs and exhibitions, will be there in even larger numbers than before.

Auto-Expo in Delhi has always been a great show. With the new low-floor buses and Metro trains serving the Pragati Maidan area, one does not have to worry about parking either, and walking about inside is better than any other entertainment in town. The list of displays is already available, though to be frank, as of now there is nothing really exciting, everything has already been shown and previewed. VW Polo, Chevrolet Beat and Maruti Eeco are ready for the market. Likewise in two-wheelers whatever had to be released has been done. There is no ultra excitement of the Tata Nano sort this time around, though that will not keep the crowds away, nor would it in any way reduce the "success" of this exhibition. Place a dummy model of any sports or luxury car, and see the crowd pour in.

This time around the theme at Auto Expo 2010 is "Green Wheels". Just about 14 years ago, during the 1996 Auto Expo, yours truly was almost thrown out of the show for asking fairly aggressive questions on environmentally friendly developments. Remember, manufacturers were of the view that India was too backward for fuel injection and cleaner engines. In reality, the truth was that between the liquid fuel industry and the automobile manufacturers, somebody had to absorb the old clunker technology and the lousy fuel coming out of ancient refineries.

What would one like to see at Auto-Expo? Not newer, but the newest engine technologies need to be heading for India. For example, the multi-fuel new generation engines and the compressed air engines. One would also like to see better road and traffic management techniques, options and opportunities, ongoing maintenance (both optional and statutory) and related systems and suppliers. And most of all, one would like to see more about how the automobile industry plans to go about taking India even further along the road of becoming a real automobile superpower.

Anybody can now make a good car in India. The basic infrastructure is in place. It is time now to make state-of-the-art solutions. Auto-Expo in India has seldom looked towards the future, choosing instead to dwell on past glories and present problems. This needs to change.

Tailpiece: Pity SIAM, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, which is supposed to be the voice of the industry. With competing views and expectations, they increasingly sound like a swimmer trying to reach out into a dozen directions at the same time, and it will be interesting to see them take positions on "Green Wheels", while at the same time pushing for more and more benefits to obsolete personal transport solutions.

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    China Express

    China is building 42 high-speed passenger rail lines of 13,000 km in the next three years, covering more than 90% of the population. By 2012, trips from Beijing to most provincial capitals would only take between one and eight hours. What’s the scene in India?

    High-speed trains are not new, as far as China is concerned, nor are new railway lines across the country and within cities. What is new and of interest is the way it came about. From top speeds of 43 km per hour (kmph) in 1978 it took China 23 years to be able to provide trains capable of 100kmph, and this was for passenger trains, previously often taking four-six days to cross from one end to the other, even longer for trains that traversed across to the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). As for freight trains, perish the thought, they took forever. As a seafarer visiting Chinese ports in the early '80s, this correspondent was witness to the amazingly ancient rolling stock and decrepit lines serving ports, which even then made India look like an advanced nation.
    Compared to that, in the early '80s, India already had passenger trains capable of 150kmph and some sections of railway lines capable of providing safe paths for some stretches, at those speeds. "Superfast" meant a train with an average speed exceeding 65kmph, now reduced to trains with average speeds of 55kmph or more, and the Rajdhani Express trains have actually seen an increase in transit times on routes like Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata. On the other hand, the sheer number of passenger trains in India has gone through the roof in the last few decades, and freight trains in India have seen improvement in both rolling stock as well as transit times, with some container trains known as ‘Con-Raj’ rakes achieving even higher average speeds than superfast trains on the same routes.
    But what is interesting to note is the difference in approach by governance towards improvement of passenger services in China, vis-a-vis India. The Chinese continue to take a position where future development and growth of the interiors is the biggest driver for new passenger train services. In India, the Indian Railways has increasingly given higher priorities to freight movements along already established lines or on newer mining trade routes, with scant attention to developing new routes and areas for better movement of passengers.
    So the next pragmatic question to be asked is this—should the Indian Railways devote itself to faster passenger and freight trains on fewer routes, or should it try to widen the net to include larger segments of underserved habitats with a mix of freight and passenger movements at the same technology levels and speeds?
    The answer to this is simple—there is enough room, scope and business to absorb all options, and the sooner the better.
    The only question here, however, is this—does our form of governance really wish to adopt and execute a strategy of developing and invigorating the interior parts of India, with passenger movements over rail as a motivator for future growth? No amount of number crunching for or against any argument on railways in India will resolve anything unless this specific question is answered. And to help answer that, here are a few examples:
    a) There is an Indian Railways route known as the "KK" as different from the "KR" or Konkan Rail. Very few people would have heard of the "KK" Railway, some of us may have heard of Koraput or Jagdalpur especially if we researched pre-1947 India a bit more than what the text-books taught us. This route is from Vishakapatnam to Kirandul, off the Bailadila mines, and it is a picture perfect fully electrified line, with plenty of surplus capacity. The KK Line also boasts of the highest broad gauge railway station in India, at Shimilguda, and passes through some of the most beautiful valleys and mountains in India, Araku being one, as multiple trains carrying iron ore race on the same route.
    There is only one train for passengers on this route, a slow passenger, and it takes over 16 hours to cover 470 kilometres, at an average speed of below 30kmph. Needless to mention, this train is often late, sometimes by days—not just hours. Roads are almost non-existent, and the only airstrips as well as helipads there belong to the mining industry controlled entities, but for the past few decades now, it has been only this one slow-passenger train.
    b) The Chinese, as we all know, have crossed even permafrost to build a railway line into Tibet. We are still struggling to link Jammu to Srinagar, with Leh/Ladakh nowhere on the horizon.  Moreover, existing narrow gauge lines on routes like Mettupalyam to Ooty and Pathankot to Jogindernagar are increasingly neglected, with freight and passenger movements both being given the go-bye. Likewise, the metre gauge line from Lucknow to the foothills of the Nepal border, barring a few milk-run passenger trains, is slowly withering away.
    Meanwhile, all attention is diverted by arguing over point-to-point trains and demanding more stoppages on existing routes. Expansion plans, where sanctioned, are often along existing alignments and even spur lines to the interior are not provided—thanks to the gauge rationalisation concept, newer and cheaper metre gauge or narrow gauge lines have been banned—and building broad gauge only costs a lot more.
    c) Railways are a Central subject. Not too easy for anybody other than those in the Central Government to accrue major side benefits here. Road transport, however, vests with State Governments. And elements in State Governments have tasted the benefits of toll roads, even if it is for decrepit little bridges across minor rivulets as are seen all over Uttar Pradesh, or daily usage options across urban sprawls like the Thane Creek bridge.
    So what do State Governments do, to increase their revenues, when more cargo moves by rail? They invent newer and more innovative taxes and charges, payable at points of entry and exit into and out of railway stations, thereby forcing cargo back onto the roads. And now they have started doing the same with passenger intermodal connecting transport modes like buses and taxis too. It is almost like a battle out there between the Indian Railways and State Governments.
    In all this, the real growth of passenger traffic from the interiors of India gets totally voided, while perception is moved towards replicating high-speed trains. So congratulate the Chinese, sure, but don't think of copying them by making one high-speed line on an existing trunk route somewhere.
    (Big news of the day as far as the railways are concerned is the high-speed train in China. Here are some quotes from one report out of hundreds on the subject, courtesy China Daily, the full report can be seen at

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    Why Indian Shipping is Barely Afloat

    With one of the longest coastlines in the world, India has less than 950 Indian flag merchant navy cargo ships, as against about 55,000 worldwide. That's less than a 2% global share of merchant navy ships, by number, and it becomes even worse when you factor in smaller coastal as well as inland waterway vessels. Take this further by using figures for deadweight tonnage, then India’s share trickles down to close to 1.2% of existing world tonnage—and it’s dropping—with just about 15 million DWT against a global 1,200 million DWT.


    However, here’s another bunch of statistics. Approximately 20% of the world's merchant navy personnel worldwide are of Indian nationality and origin, and to all perceptions as well as unspoken truths, over half the world's tonnage is managed by Indians located all over the world. Traditional seafaring countries like England, Japan, Italy, Norway and similar nations now have ships flying their flags with Indians not just sailing on them in junior positions but also in command. Some of these countries are now actively looking for Indians who also speak their local languages to work on their coastal ships, since their own nationals do not wish to work on ships anymore, and the fishing fleets with their factory ships have to go out further, thus requiring "foreign-going" qualifications. Around 4,500 merchant navy ships flying foreign flags are managed out of India, mainly from Mumbai, but the number is growing rapidly, and in other parts of the country too. This does not include the number of foreign flag ships managed from other parts of the world, but also employing Indians, on which there are not even ballpark estimates, so high is the number.


    The Certificate of Competency (CoC) earned by seafarers after multiple exams and training, issued by the Indian Government, is granted equivalency by other countries, including the developed countries, because it is recognised as one of the toughest regimes existing to acquire the privilege of sailing on board ships, worldwide. A side effect of this is that almost 75% of all candidates studying for the CoC in England are from India, because that is perceived to be an easier "system", and it also gives easier access to EU job markets. By some accounts, there are over 1.7 lakh seafarers from India, just about 25,000 of whom work for Indian companies, the rest work in foreign jobs because quite simply the tax regime is easier on them—amongst other things. And this number is rising—the demand for Indian seafarers continues unabated, even as there is a severe shortage worldwide. The average age of a seafarer in England or Japan is now over 50 years, young people there are not taking to seafaring as a profession, and in a decade or less, they will not have too many of their own people to man their own ships.


    So what ails Indian flag shipping, why don't the numbers add up, why is Indian surface transport by water so neglected and behind times? Why can't we have more Indian flagships, so that along with seafarers, it is also our ships that sail across the seas, dominating like our Indian seafarers do?


    The answer, as always, lies in the petty and short-sighted way governance treats all forms of transport as short-term revenue generating tools, and not long-term nation building efforts. The attitude down the line with the variety of entities which control shipping in India is the same as the attitude one sees in transport offices, the place where you and I go for our driving licences which are issued—or better still, not issued—unless motivated.


    That sea cargo is without doubt the most efficient way to transport goods is another given and simultaneously in India a reason for its neglect—once the ports are built and the ships are bought, there is no need to build roads or railway lines, acquire land or operate toll stations and marshalling yards. All you need to do is get the ships out and on to the seas, freedom of transit on which is guaranteed by historical conventions and modern day laws, and get a move on. On a per tonne per kilometre basis, it is cheaper to send anything over a truck or wagon load by sea from Gujarat to the east coast of India, and at a four-five day transit time, probably as fast too—and that is a fact already being recognised wherever possible. But the obstacles faced by coastal shipping are so immense, that even the best and strongest of contenders have often backed out, giving way to the entrenched road lobbies.


    Putting everything else aside, that is also the single biggest reason why water-borne cargo and passenger movements by inland waterways have been put on the back-burner in post-1947 India, except in selective areas like Kerala and West Bengal. Governance and those in authority cannot make money by holding up vessels and cargo or passengers once on the rivers, as easily as they can do on roads, so it simply does not work for those who have made a fine art out of this method of generating incomes, without caring about consequences, and Bihar is a fine example of how a State self-destructs after river-borne trade is destroyed.


    This is the true reason why surface transport by water, inland or coastal, has been such a flop in post-Independence India. Putting it bluntly, at the risk of repetition, there is no way any ‘hafta’ can be collected once a ship has sailed out, so coastal or inland waterway shipping is the last on anybody's priorities. A few thousand tonnes sent by road or river or even by air will keep multiple centre-state-city-group-individual interests happy and well-fed for generations, such are the transaction benefits en route, as can be seen at any state border. A few thousand tonnes sent by sea will deprive them their seven generations’ worth of bread, butter and jam.


    But that's a fact of life. Undivided pre-Independence India had more coastal shipping, both passenger and cargo, than we have now. Karachi-Saurashtra - Bombay-Konkan, and thence to Ceylon via the Malabar coasts, for example, is a route that’s simply extinct now. Look at a map of India, and wonder why we do not have more ferries crossing the Gulf of Khambhat, or sailing from Mumbai (south) to Goa or north to Gujarat.


    The manpower is there, the need is there, tonnage and ships have never been cheaper worldwide, and the reasons are all there. But who wants it? An Indian friend who owns and operates a leading foreign flag shipping company from one of the oldest and finest maritime nations in the world found out, when for reasons of patriotism, he tried to re-flag some of his ships to the Indian flag. Amongst other things, powerful entities in India who were capable of investing "hot money" in millions of dollars, made it very clear that it would be beneficial to all concerned if he continued running foreign flag ships, with ownership hidden in places like the Isle of Man, British Virgin Islands, Delaware, Luxembourg and similar places—instead of under the Indian flag, because the source of money would be easily traced.


    In addition, and this is the really troublesome part—the whole concept and execution of owning and operating a ship under the Indian flag to work on the Indian coast is stacked against any such effort. More on this aspect soon.


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    1 decade ago

    A convincing explanation on why shipping is neglected


    1 decade ago

    From a die-hard Indian seafarer : The extinction of Indian Shipping started with the takeover of Jayanti Shipping by SCI, the mis-management and fall of Scindia Steam Navigation to name a few. Now all that's left is in the hands of SCI (the slipshod corruption of India)... nothing much in the private sector to talk about. We need a mindset change in the ways our Ministery of Shipping and Transport thinks....

    shubho sengupta

    1 decade ago

    For a non-shippie, this article was an eye-opener.

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