City of smog drives ageing Ambassadors into retirement

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The Independent Online

Local authorities in Calcutta have announced plans to ban one of the city's most distinctive hallmarks: its fleet of ancient cars, buses and taxis. As anyone who has visited Calcutta knows, its streets are a veritable museum of battered, clapped-out old cars. The moment you step out of the airport, you are hustled into a taxi that shakes so much you wonder whether it will hold together, and makes more noise than a jumbo jet at take-off, even though you are only doing 15mph.

Local authorities in Calcutta have announced plans to ban one of the city's most distinctive hallmarks: its fleet of ancient cars, buses and taxis. As anyone who has visited Calcutta knows, its streets are a veritable museum of battered, clapped-out old cars. The moment you step out of the airport, you are hustled into a taxi that shakes so much you wonder whether it will hold together, and makes more noise than a jumbo jet at take-off, even though you are only doing 15mph.

While India's economic boom had seen a flood of imported cars make the streets of other cities such as Delhi and Bombay, look like everywhere else in the world, Calcutta remains the preserve of that quintessentially Indian car, the Hindustan Ambassador.

Based on a 1950s-era British Morris Oxford, the Ambassador has become as much a symbol of India as Ferrari is of Italy - for all that India's aspirational new rich wish it had not. Part of the reason it is so popular in Calcutta is that the Hindustan factory is just up the road.

The factory is still turning out Ambassadors today. But while any Ambassador you see in Delhi is likely to be a new model, complete with digital clock and central locking, Calcutta is full of ancient Ambassadors.

Most do not have rear view mirrors, let alone wing mirrors. Nor rear seatbelts. Nor even grab handles for the rear passengers to cling to as they swerve through traffic. The done thing is to wind down the rear window a little, and cling to the roof.

It is not just Ambassadors. There is the Hindustan, a remake of the hideous 1970s Vauxhall Victor, and the Padmini, a 1950s-era Fiat. You often wonder how these cars are kept running. And it does not stop at the cars. At first you cannot work out what is so puzzling about the buses. Then you realise: you have never seen a bus that shape in colour before - the only place you have seen them is in black-and-white movies.

But now the West Bengal state government has decided that time is up for many of these museum pieces, and announced that all cars and buses made before 1990 will be ordered off the roads.

The reason is another of Calcutta's distinctive hallmarks: its choking pollution. Leave the window of a Calcutta taxi down while wearing a white shirt and in an hour you have a black shirt. The pollution stings your eyes, and you can feel it gathering on your face. On winter nights the city is enveloped in a thick white smog.

Research by Calcutta University and the Chittaranjan Cancer Research Institute shows almost half of the city's population have major respiratory disorders. The rate of lung cancer is climbing. With its narrow streets, Calcutta often suffers from gridlock. Taxi drivers routinely switch off their engines when traffic comes to a halt - not to prevent pollution, but to save fuel.

Some 9,587 taxis, 7,464 buses, 6,784 auto-rickshaws, 1,164 minibuses and nearly 30,000 goods vehicles will be affected. They can stay on the road - if they convert from petrol or diesel to compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquid petroleum gas (LPG).

Delhi massively reduced its pollution levels a few years ago by forcing all public transport to CNG. The highly explosive LPG is a more dangerous alternative - so much so that some other cities in India will not allow LPG cars in, and have police stationed at the entrance of the city to keep the "bombs on wheels" out.

There is still no effort to get the strangest of Calcutta's modes of transport of the streets. The city is one of few where human-pulled rickshaws still operate. So far the pullers have resisted all attempts to convert them to the less lethal cycle-rickshaw.

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