Road hell: mind the cows!

Driving in Delhi is a hazardous experience – and that's before the city's roads are invaded by the cut-price Tata Nano. Andrew Buncombe takes his life into his hands behind the wheel
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"Not too fast. Mind the cows," says the instructor, trying to remain calm. "Yes, there are lots of cows in India."

We edge around the half-dozen hump-backed creatures merrily eating the contents of an overflowing rubbish skip. The wheels rattle, the car shakes. We pass a handful of shop-fronts, stray dogs and children before turning into what seems like an impossibly narrow back street. Surely we're not going to drive down there? "It's very narrow, very slowly," the instructor says unnecessarily. "Now go straight."

In India, driving is not for the faint-hearted. The roads are crowded and cluttered and filled with a rare energy. There is noise and dust and heat and honking and pushing. Barely anyone obeys either the traffic rules or else the most basic rules of common sense as they jostle for position. Sometimes it feels like Rollerball, the futuristic, full-contact "sport" that gave its name to the 1975 movie starring James Caan. Frankly, it is terrifying.

Yet it is only going to get worse. In economically buoyant India, a newly prosperous middle-class is taking to the roads like never before. Last year alone India's car fleet increased by at least a million as this new consumer class ditched its motorbikes and bicycles and opted to get behind the wheel of a car.

The manufacturers are making it easy for them. Last week Tata Motors unveiled the world's cheapest car, a four-door, 633cc model which the company is targeting at families looking to upgrade from two wheels to four. The basic model costs just £1,277.

If India is an awful place for driving, Delhi must surely be among the worst of the worst. The bursting capital of 16 million people has around 5.3 million vehicles. Every day another 600 legally registered vehicles join the throng, plus an untold number of illegal additions. During the evening rush, driving just a few miles can take several hours.

It is dangerous too. Rohit Baluja, president of India's Institute of Road Traffic Education, says each year there are at least 2,000 road traffic deaths in the city. Nationally, with 100,000 fatalities and one million injuries, he believes India has a worse record than any other country. "Such a position is worrisome and much needs to be done to reduce these figures," he says.

And yet at times there are few alternatives to a car. While Delhi's new metro system is efficient and clean, its geographic reach is still limited. And the city's bus services – the usual means of transport for the masses – are hugely inadequate and frequently deadly. There are often no pavements, even though millions of people still walk or cycle. Taxis often have no air-conditioning – a brain-searing setback when the summer mercury soars to 46C – and riding in a rickshaw feels like playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber.

So if you are going to drive, you had better learn how. Better for you, better for everyone else. No matter that you passed your test 20 years ago – the examiner miraculously overlooking the failed attempt to reverse around a corner – this is different.

I arrange for a 90-minute refresher course with an instructor in my neighbourhood on the southern edge of Delhi and my instructor, Ram Karan, a friendly 28-year-old, picks me up in his battered white Maruti-Suzuki 800. The model is the most common car on India's roads and until last week's unveiling by Tata, the cheapest. Unusually, the car has both a wing mirror and a reversing mirror, of which Mr Karan makes a great fuss of adjusting. There is a seat-belt but no clip in which to lock the seat-belt. Mr Karan tells me not to worry and advises me to simply drape the seat-belt across my chest.

We turn into the road. Momentarily everything appears remarkably quiet. Is something wrong; where is the traffic? Then I realise the traffic has been backed up at a red light. Slowly, gradually, like an orchestra tuning its instruments, the noise of the road builds and soon we are engulfed by other traffic – cars, diesel-fuelled lorries, bicycles, a flurry of racing yellow and green rickshaws, their drivers hunched over like jockeys on their mounts.

When I first arrived in Delhi, frying in a summer heatwave, it was the noise of the traffic which struck me more than its madness. Endless, unceasing noise and a constant blaring of horns that would make the most impatient of New York taxi drivers appear polite.

Indian motorists like to use their horns for every reason, and often for no reason at all. Motorists will sound it both when over-taking and being over-taken, when a car is approaching from behind and when a car has long passed. They will sound their horn when coming up to a junction and when leaving it. They will use them to signal both gratitude or displeasure.

Sometimes it will be used for no reason whatsoever. On the rare occasions when you find yourself in a taxi on an open stretch of road, often at night, you will still find the driver routinely sounding his horn. It may be to warn any unfortunate person lying in the ill-lit street to get out of the way, but I suspect that beguiled by finding themselves alone on the highway, they do it for gentle celebration. Beep-beep!

The downside of all this is two-fold. First, because everyone is constantly sounding their horn, its warning becomes devalued. You can be on the road and someone behind can sound their horn very loudly and yet it is unclear whether their brakes have failed and they are about to ram you.

Second, there is the noise pollution. Parts of the city can be deafening, a rude cacophony of noise. One sweltering afternoon, day-dreaming in the back of a taxi amid a scraping row that sounded like the unsettling opening of Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, I hit upon a proposal for the city's transport authorities: would it not be possible to slightly re-tune the horns of every discordant vehicle in the city? Rather, therefore, than blaring out terrible, banshee-like notes, they could be changed to something just a semi-tone sweeter?

By now, Mr Karan and myself are making good progress. It is a warm afternoon, and the pale winter sun sits low in the sky. The air is singed by what smells like fires of cow dung. We carefully pass some cyclists swaying back and forth on their sit-up-and-beg bicycles. I am watching in each and every direction and yet I'm terrified of hitting something. I am trying to do without the horn, but just as another vehicle pushes in alongside us Mr Karan leans forward and presses it anyway. Just to be sure.

When I ask what is the single most important thing you need to bear in mind driving in India, he doesn't hesitate. "In India you have to be ready for anything coming out on to the road in front of you," he says. "All the time you have to be watching. Anyone can do anything."

A (partial) list of things that might suddenly confront you on a road here: wild monkeys, tamed elephants, a pair of hobbled donkeys, cows (either individually or in clusters); a family of four squeezed together on a motor scooter with the mother sitting side-saddle and only the father wearing a helmet (an Indian friend told me the law also obliged women to wear helmets but that the police did not enforce the law out of "politeness"); bicycles bearing heavy red cylinders of propane gas which most households use to cook; malnourished men standing up as they struggle to move their cycle-carts laden down with sacks of grain or washing machines; dozens of orange-clad Hindu devotees marching intently; carts pulled by camels; vehicles routinely being driven in the wrong direction along the shoulder of the highway; men herding buffalo, boys herding goats; women balancing sacks on their heads, men carrying baskets containing snakes; chai-wallahs pushing their tea carts, peanut sellers selling their wares; vehicles that routinely do not stay in their lanes but stick to the middle of lanes seemingly using the white lines as a centring device on which to locate themselves.

Occasionally you'll even see a policeman. But not often. Experts say a major problem with India's roads is a lack of enforcement. This is why so much of the driving in India is so poor. Most people buy a car first and then think about having lessons. Getting a licence does not require the actual ability to drive, or even to read and they can be easily bought. Mr Karan even cheerily admits that while he had been a driving instructor for 10 years, he has no qualification.

My initial impression of India's roads was of a seemingly dog-eat-dog world where only the strongest survived. Precedence went to the biggest lorry and heaven help the pedestrian or cyclist who dared to get in the way. I even theorised the brutish Hobbesian world of the Indian highway was somehow related to the country's caste system which sees the poor trampled underfoot by the powerful.

But puttering along with Mr Karan I start wondering whether there may be more to it than what one sees on the surface. Without defending the worst, life-threatening excesses, I wonder whether the situation on India's roads may actually be an Indian solution to a problem out of the hands of the people involved.

Yes, traffic will merge into five or six lanes on roads built for two; yes, vehicles will jostle endlessly for position, acts of sheer lunacy will be committed simply in the name of getting from A to B. And yet for all of this people are remarkably tolerant, quite unlike Britain or the US where violent acts of road rage are commonplace. Here it seems people expect others to cut them up. Those horns may be loud and inescapable but oddly they rarely feel aggressive.