Hard Times: Give us more cars and less traffic!

In July 2007, we featured an interesting new film called Faecal Attraction. It probed the link between sewage disposal and river water pollution in India — specifically, the River Yamuna, part of the massive Indo-Gangetic river system.

Now the intrepid film-maker Pradip Saha has taken on another big, messy subject that has even bigger vested interests: the auto industry and its contribution to worsening traffic congestion, air pollution and public health in metropolitan India, especially the capital Delhi.

The film couldn’t have come at a better (worse?) time. India’s Tata Motors will be unveiling their people’s car, priced at Indian Rupees 100,000 (US$ 2,600 approx) on 10 January 2008 at Auto Expo in New Delhi.

“A car priced at hundred thousand Indian Rupees means a lot in terms of urban planning, urban life,” says Pradip, who is also the editor of Down to Earth magazine on science and environment. “Roads are already clogged, winter air is thick with SOX and NOX, our cities will be swarming with small cars.”

He says a few gunfights have already taken place in Delhi between neighbours over claims on parking space. Automobile industry has made urban space pretty absurd.

Pradip Saha Courtesy CSE India
Courtesy CSE Down to Earth

Yet, he adds, any opposition to the introduction of these swarming small cars on account of increasing traffic congestion and pollution has been termed by the car maker and their friends as ‘elitist’. “This car maker has positioned itself as the agent of liberation, where we all have cars. Kink has no boundary.”

So Pradip decided to take the issue head on, making fun of a very serious situation.

Here’s the story behind the film, in Pradip Saha’s own words:

I was invited for an art residency by Khoj, an international artist’s association in Delhi. The brief was to create a public artwork with urban ecological concern.

I decided to do something on automobiles. My initial response was to respond to the way automobiles are sold, playing with desire. I also find certain policy issues related to automobile use pretty kinky. For example, when the auto bosses complain to highest financial authority about slump in auto sale, the highest financial authority calls the bank bosses to make car loans easy. Isn’t it kinky? I was thinking of pushing these kinks and business of desire a bit and create pornography that has automobiles as characters.

I made two. But wasn’t sure about putting them in public as kids will be seeing them too. I have been talking a few friends to create a website of automobile porns, mimicking standard porn site sensibilities.

So I turned to another format. I created a fake news TV channel called HARD TIMES, and went to the road interviewing drivers and riders in cars stuck in traffic jam in Delhi. The style is a take on News TV style, where they stick a microphone down your throat on any occasion, pretending a democratic format that generates peoples’ voice.

I did the same, with 2 basic questions: What is the reason of traffic jam? and How can we solve traffic jam? I edited 5.50 minutes video, and showed it as a loop in Connaught place, on the pavement on a large plasma screen. It also had an accompanying LED display board, a la, railway station information system, that went on giving out important numbers related to absurdity of automobile use in the city. This was a loop too.

Ultra low-cost small cars — such as the much-hyped models being planned by the Tatas and other carmakers — can mean big trouble for India, unless the country makes drastic policy changes. A new study by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) , released in October 2007, said the influx of these cars would drive public transport and two-wheelers off the roads and greatly increase urban congestion and pollution.

Courtesy CSE Down to Earth

Read CSE’s Down to Earth cover story on 15 October 2007: Small car revolution: Who cares about congestion, pollution