A few weeks ago, a report came out that — once again — India led the world in traffic deaths. Given its population (estimated at nearly 1.2 billion, which puts it behind only China), the nation would logically be near the top of the list regardless of any priority it placed on safety. In fact, when India took over the number one spot for road fatalities (from China) in 2006, many people saw this as further evidence that India was truly becoming a economic power.
While having many of you citizens die on the road is obviously counterintuitive to progress, more people driving meant more people were buying cars because more people had more money. Safety needed to be improved, sure, but automobile transportation is always going to lead to some casualties that correlate to population and/or what percentage of that population has purchasing power great enough to afford a luxury like a car.
Anyone who subscribed to that theory five years ago, however, is probably starting to see India’s high death rate for what it is: tragic and avoidable. This New York Times article breaks it down.
While road deaths in many other big emerging markets have declined or stabilized in recent years, even as vehicle sales jumped, in India, fatalities are skyrocketing — up 40 percent in five years to more than 118,000 in 2008, the last figure available.
A lethal brew of poor road planning, inadequate law enforcement, a surge in trucks and cars, and a flood of untrained drivers have made India the world’s road death capital. As the country’s fast-growing economy and huge population raise its importance on the world stage, the rising toll is a reminder that the government still struggles to keep its more than a billion people safe.
In China, by contrast, which has undergone an auto boom of its own, official figures for road deaths have been falling for much of the past decade, to 73,500 in 2008, as new highways segregate cars from pedestrians, tractors and other slow-moving traffic, and the government cracks down on drunken driving and other violations.
It has been illustrated through various means time and time again, but this is just one more example of how India’s city planners and public officials are failing to provide adequate infrastructure to support the nation’s booming economy.
Unfortunately for Indians, roadways aren’t the only transportation problem. As you can see in the video below, the trains are not a much better option. Marked by overcrowding and delays, it takes workers who commute to the major cities an exorbitant effort just to make it to their jobs every day. Worse still, there are still many political and religious-based attacks on railways in many regions. The 2006 Mumbai bombings, for example, killed more than 200 and injured another 700.
A few weeks ago I went to the annual meeting of Coface, a company that specializes in international credit risk. As it does each year, Coface brought in a group of experts to talk about the most pressing global economic issues and professor David Denoon of New York University spoke about China and India, painting a much different development picture of the world’s two most populous locales.
China, he said, is characterized by places like Shanghai, where just in recent years alone construction has begun on more high rises than exist in all of Chicago. By contrast, he emphasized that the per capita income in India is merely $3,100. That’s equal to one-third of the average income in Brazil and one-fifth the average in Russia.
Looking at those numbers, it seems that both infrastructure and income distribution will pose a growing concern for the nation that puts the I in BRIC.*
* (The acronym for the world’s four biggest emerging economic powers, Brazil, Russia, India and China. Also, for a look at some of the risks that have plagued the largest Indian carmaker, check out Bill Coffin’s look at Tata Motors’ “Cheap Cars, Costly Protests.”)
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