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COLUMN ONE

Graft Takes the Wheel

In New Delhi, most drivers pay people off to get licenses, a study says. Safety takes a back seat.

August 02, 2006|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — It doesn't take a Harvard degree to figure out that driving here is hazardous to your health. Near-misses, reckless weaving and cars blithely going the wrong way are highlights of the daredevil derby known as New Delhi traffic.

But a recent study by economists from Harvard and other American universities suggests that, indeed, a majority of this city's drivers get their licenses without actually knowing how to operate a car. They ply the roads legally because of a simple fact: government corruption.

As many as 75% of motorists in New Delhi obtain their permits by hiring agents whose palm-greasing intervention saves them time, energy and the hassle of learning the difference between the brake and the accelerator, the report says.

Those with agents bypass long waits in dingy government offices and almost never have to submit to the road test that's supposedly required of all would-be drivers. In fact, when newly licensed motorists who participated in the study were given a surprise driving exam, more than 60% flunked.

"We had five questions about how to start a car, how to change gears, and how they worked, which are very basic questions," said Marianne Bertrand, a professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and a coauthor of the report. "They couldn't answer them."

Evidence of such cluelessness is thick on the ground in India's capital, where getting from point A to point B is a white-knuckle exercise and traffic safety seems an oxymoron.

Each day, more than 4 million vehicles jockey for position along narrow lanes that wind through ancient bazaars or boulevards originally designed for the horse-drawn carriages and stately cars of India's British colonial elite.

Rules of the road exist, but mainly on paper. On the streets, it's the law of the jungle.

Bus drivers cut off motorcyclists, truckers dodge cows, entire families squeeze onto a single scooter, three-wheel "auto rickshaws" zip in between everyone else, and those on foot utter prayers and curses in equal measure.

Lane markings are dismissed as optional; turn signals are for wimps. Vehicles surge through intersections like tidal waves, churning up sprays of dust.

It's a raucous free-for-all where the most important piece of advice is found painted on the backs of taxis and trucks: "Horn please."

"They drive like they're pedestrians. If it's faster to go the wrong way up the street, they'll do it. They have no sense of danger," said one exasperated British executive who ventures out behind the wheel only on weekends. "You have to be vigilant all the time."

Few cars are without scratches and scrapes, or worse.

In 2004, Delhi Traffic Police logged 9,083 accidents, in which 1,832 people died. That's an average of five auto-related fatalities a day in a city that boasts 14 million people -- but only 2.6 million licensed drivers, a Transportation Ministry official said. Los Angeles County, home to 10 million people, had about two such deaths a day the same year.

Many accidents here occur at night, when some motorists drive with their lights off, in the belief that their car batteries will last longer.

The chaos on Delhi's streets is at least partly explained by the findings of the study published last month by economists from Harvard University, the University of Chicago, New York University and the International Finance Corp., an arm of the World Bank.

The scholars were commissioned to look into the effects of government corruption. Their report, "Does Corruption Produce Unsafe Drivers?" (answer: yes), has cast an unflattering light not just on the menace lurking on Delhi's streets but also on India's Kafkaesque bureaucracy and the dishonesty it has spawned.

Clandestine payoffs or special favors smooth the way for everything from buying property to acquiring government ration cards. They secure places in good schools for your kids, ensure you prompt attention at the hospital, provide you access to bank loans, exempt you from local building codes.

In a survey four years ago of more than 5,000 Indian households by the organization Transparency International, 100% of those who had dealings with police said they encountered some form of corruption.

These are discouraging realities in the world's most populous democracy, a rapidly developing land eager to join the club of prosperous, advanced nations and whose greatest modern-day hero, Mohandas K. Gandhi, was almost universally regarded as a paragon of moral virtue.

"The whole country is deep in corruption," said N.S. Venkataraman, an activist in the southern city of Chennai, formerly known as Madras. "Corruption is there from one end to the other."

Last year, Transparency International ranked India 88th in its annual honesty index, alongside such countries as Iran and Gabon. Rival China, Asia's other developing giant and also a magnet for corruption, was 10 slots ahead, at 78. (Iceland was judged the most honest nation; the U.S. ranked 17th.)

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