Whatever you imagine India to be like, whatever you have heard about it – good or bad, it is all likely to be true because it is such a huge country with such a diverse landscape, varying climates and home to 1.264 billion people with a multitude of faiths, religions, castes and wealth.

The population is only second in size to that of China, likewise the Indian military is second in its global size to that of China as it  currently holds a watchful stance with is ‘friendly neighbour’ as our tour guide always referred to Pakistan.

Of the 1.264 billion residents of India, 20% are said to be classed as well off, billionaires, millionaires, Bollywood stars and cricketers plus industrialists.  But the fastest growing sector is the middle class, now 40% of the population.  

A year ago according to their last census it was 30%, it appears to be rising 10% every year.  Perhaps 40% doesn’t sound too much but the comparison our tour guide offered us was that the 40% is the same as the total population of the USA. 

This current fast growing middle-class is what is driving India forwards.  Modern-day better educated Indians generally have an aspirational approach to life these days, call it one-upmanship’, because they see from television programmes what lifestyle European and Americans enjoy. 

They now want the same; they want their own houses, they want their own cars, they want holidays, they want to travel and they want their children to be well educated. 

The problem with the education ‘I want’ is that Indian students are leaving the country in big numbers to further their education in America and Europe and not returning.  

They get their degrees abroad, they get highly-paid jobs abroad, and they marry and have families abroad and only re-visit India occasionally for holidays.  In the past it has been usual for Indians to live as extended family units, the young taking care of the old on a rotational cycle. Our guide said this is no longer happening in many cases with these families not having resident younger members to continue the cycle.  The future growth of the middle classes will have to come about as lower class Indians become middle class.   

This is happening now as the rural communities are moving into urban areas seeking the numerous better paid jobs on offer and many of them are in booming road and house construction. My latest visit just prior to Christmas  included some time in Royal Rajasthan – ‘Land of Kings’- home to the Maharajas past and present.  Rajasthan is India’s largest state with a population about the size of Britain.  

During this visit we made a trip into the oil/mineral/gas/solar powerhouse of the Thar Desert in the North West of India which leads to the Pakistan border.  

After arrival at the relatively new New Delhi terminal three airport building our journey began and included visits again to Delhi Old and New, Agra, Jaipur and Jodhpur, tourism calls it the Golden Triangle.  We added in Udaipur plus the Thar Desert ancient cities of Jaisalmer and  Bikaner – the camel capital of Rajasthan.   

A total of seven hotels (five of them former Palaces) two nights in each over 15 days plus 2,000 miles (500 on an internal flight) mainly in an air conditioned Isuzu coach. It felt like 14 consecutive press launches and it was hot (33c), but with no humidity and sunny despite it being winter. 

This is not meant to be a travel-log, it is just our views, with motoring in mind, on how fast this part of India has changed in a relatively short time. Until four years nothing much had happened in terms of bettering the lives of the poor since Britain pulled out in 1947 implementing ‘partition’ with the formation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim country from India home to Hindus and Sikhs.     

Let me start with the latest bit of automotive news which was published the day we left New Delhi.  An Indian court has banned all vehicles older than 15 years from the streets of the capital New Delhi in a bid to clean up the air, considered to be the world’s dirtiest.  

This ruling will hit around one third of the 8.4 million cars, motorcycles, trucks, buses and Tuk-Tuks that clog Delhi’s roads daily.   Other major cities are expected to follow this ruling.

The ban in Delhi so far lacks the incentive to encourage drivers to trade in their old vehicles for new as the UK did with our Scrappage Scheme.  Vehicles are said to cause three-quarters of Delhi’s air pollution.  

Critics say the ruling is unenforceable. Delhi sees 1,500 new vehicles roll onto its roads daily. India’s total traffic population is around 80 million vehicles, not including bullock and camel carts, bicycles and cycle rickshaws.

In Delhi all public transport busses are now fuelled by CNG (compressed natural gas) and even the Tuk-Tuks in Delhi and other cities now use CNG to reduce emissions.  The famous old Ambassador taxis are being replaced as their production has now ceased and the most common taxi now appears to be a Toyota  medium sized passenger car or their large MPVs  which also proving to be popular as VIP tourist transport rather than the ancient Mahindra Jeeps.  Even the old leaf sprung Tata tourist coaches built on lorry chassis are being replaced by modern Indian built Volvo and Isuzu air conditioned models with air suspension.  

Our driver told me these new vehicles use half the amount of fuel compared to the aged Tata buses and they are much cleaner for emissions and more reliable.  Will they be as durable given the state of some road surfaces – unlikely?

There were 2.55 million new passenger cars sold in India in 2013, a fall on the year before but in 2014 sales have increased with India’s flourishing economy, cheaper fuel prices and more job opportunities.  The top four best selling cars in India are all manufactured by Maruti Suzuki with the Alto being the most popular and the same manufacturer hold six of the top ten places.  

They are followed in sales performance order by Hyundai, Honda, Toyota and Tata. Maruti Suzuki’s share of the Indian new car market is 49%.  Virtually all new cars sold in India are assembled there as there is a 50% import tax on non Indian built vehicles.  

The Indian passenger car and commercial vehicle production capability is currently the sixth largest in the worlds with close to 4-million units produced last year with 1.8-million exported.   Chennai in the south is the largest production hub in India. Known as the Detroit of Asia it is expected to produce 3-million vehicles a year from 2015 with exports accounting for 60% of production.

The new car sales figures are only part of the growth in extra vehicles joining India’s chaotic roads. Huge numbers of used Japanese and South Korean cars (we used to call them grey imports) have flooded the market at very cheap prices. The much heralded and cheap Indian built Nano has sold in very limited numbers – I only saw two of them during this visit. 

Our guide says Indian’s aspirational culture found it too cheap and too small and people were happier to buy one of the larger, better specification and safer used imports on their way to owning a new Indian built Toyota, Maruti Suzuki, Hyundai or VW model.   

Only the rich appeared to drive Audis and BMWs and surprisingly I hardly saw a Land/Range Rover despite their ownership by Tata.  Jeep style 4×4 vehicles are nearly all Mahindras of varying sizes and ages. Some of their latest models look very well made.  

Another very popular model throughout northern India is the Mahindra Scorpio SUV).  It seems to be the vehicle of choice for the freelance taxiing of rural workers to the outskirts of big cities instead of the crowded busses where you might end up riding on the roof.

These owner-drivers just load up their vehicles with passengers who wave them down on the side of the ride and get off where they need to, no regular stopping places, just a point-to-point operation.

The passenger gets in or sometimes hangs off the Scorpio then hands the fee to the driver via other on-board passengers and off they go. 

Many times these vehicle just slow but not stop as passengers get in or get off. Railways are another major transport solution in India through the ages thanks to the British.  

Today more and more modern rolling stock is being used and generally these trains run on time day in and day out. This is yet another of Indian’s traditional fastidious ex British traits, time keeping run through layers of management streams and paperwork to make it all happen.

In New Delhi and other major northern cities new housing complexes linked to high-tech business supported by new schools, colleges, universities and medical centres and hospitals have sprung up mostly provided by outside investment.  India has well and truly opened its doors to outside investment to improve its future.

In 1991 there was an about turn from India’s past in nationalising all foreign companies which brought them to the brink of bankruptcy.  The then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh implemented an ‘Open Skies’ policy which allowed multinational companies to invest in India  and so the financial revolution started and companies such as Coca-Colas, Nike, Microsoft, Marks and Spencer and of course the automotive brands.

New roads are being built everywhere linking major cities, again financed, built and run by outside investment.  Even in congested Delhi there are new elevated roads built to speed up the flow of traffic and roads are still chaotic, noisy and dangerous. In Delhi there is a new metro system linking the new technology centres with associated housing with the city.   

Expressway toll roads and being built to link all the major cities to support India’s growth and prosperity but even this multi-lane highways are still chaotic as modern transports shares road space with bullock carts, crowded buses, overloaded multi-coloured lorries, still on occasions using the wrong lanes, undertaking or just coming towards you on the wrong side of the road until they can find a crossing into the right lanes.  It’s manic but it’s still India of old but with a modern twist.

Since out last visit to this region four years ago it is very noticeable in the main cities how much less litter there is, significantly less beggars  and the homeless children run by gang-master selling trinkets to harassed tourists is also much less.  Education is working. 

 Of course with up to 40% of the population still considered to be rural peasants, venture beyond the new roads, the new high tech factories and the new housing estates and you soon return to a primitive way of life where bullock or camel carts and mopeds are the main form of transport. 

But even in rural towns and on the dirt roads there are more and more farmers with new shiny red Massey Harris Leyland Indian built tractors, not the huge types we have in Europe, but going back to the size of the ancient Massey Fergusons we remember with fondness.

India is booming and a further growth area is the Thar Desert to the west of Delhi and up to the Pakistan border, home of the nomadic camel herders for centuries but now home of the Indian military, both the army and air force.  All the time military exercises take place and much of the hardware is Russian sourced Mig aircraft and aged technology Russian tanks but again these are assembled in India.

The Thar Desert is the location for India’s nuclear weapons development.  It is also the new home for millions of solar panels as the country strives to produce more electricity to power its industrial growth.  Both oil and gas has been found in this region and foreign companies are now bidding to invest in its extraction.  

Already long straight tarmac roads have been built into the region to speed up the construction of the gas and oil extraction plants.  To support this new venture and the existing tourist trade, new hotels are springing up, mainly designed and built to resemble old style military forts. Their construction and future staffing is another opportunity for more employment as the lower classes aspire to become middle class and middle class to become upper class.

The speed at which India is changing is impressive.

Of course the rich will get richer, the middle class numbers will grow but it is very likely the poor will gain the most given what they have today.

If you want to see India as we imagine it, go soon, it is changing and mostly for the better.

David Miles
David Miles
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