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SAVING SPACE

Success has many fathers. The history of the car teems with names like Amédée Bollée, Josef Bozek, Walter Hancock, Karl Benz and Rudolf Diesel. But the best known name remains that of Henry Ford, who worked out how to make hundreds of thousands of cars and sell them like brooms. Ford and its prime competitor, General Motors, made the United States of America a nation of car drivers; thanks to their invention of mass production, the US remained the world’s leading car producer for a century. What Henry Ford would have thought of Alan Mulally, the latest chief executive of his company, is unclear; probably he would not have employed Mr Mulally at all. For he has come out with the opinion that the age of cars is coming to an end and that people should start using buses. That is not treason, for Ford is not just a car manufacturer; it produces many more trucks, buses and carriers than cars. But the view deviates from the universal image of the car as an American’s castle.

It will not shock Indians as much, for they are used to being packed into buses, trucks, rickshaws, and other, stranger vehicles. Even as riders of common carriers, though, they are missing out on many comforts offered by a company like Ford or Volkswagen. For the Indian concept of a bus as a vehicle with forty seats and a hundred standing spaces is outdated. Only Indian companies produce such a limited range of collective passenger vehicles. Ford itself produces buses seating 8-17 passengers in comfortable seats with ample leg space. A company like Volvo that specializes in buses offers many more choices from rapid transit to cosy snooze.

Variety is not unknown to the Indian vehicle industry. The range in what are known as utility vehicles — those made for rough rides on country roads — is enormous. The buyer faces a rich variety of options in comfort and cost. A similar range is available around the globe in buses; but it is much more limited in India. The buyer is the cause. For most major Indian cities have a municipal bus service. Municipalities buy buses in bulk by tender; so the cheapest supplier wins. To make cheap buses, they have to be produced on a large scale. So India is stuck with a handful of bus makers who produce cheap models. No doubt, some cities allow private operators, but price control on bus fares ensures bad service from rickety vehicles. Indians should get serious for a shift from cars to common carriers; the way to make it is to remove control on bus fares. The rich will travel comfortably in any case; but even in comfort, they will take less road space if luxury buses of different sizes are sold and made in India. That will not be unless bus fares are decontrolled.