New Delhi: The serpentine traffic of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and many other Indian cities would have you believe that a deluge of cars has taken over Indian roads. But the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 suggests that only about 8 per cent of Indian households — or 1 in 12 households — own cars.
The vast majority of Indians still own two-wheelers — as many as 55 per cent of Indian households have a bicycle, while those with scooters and motorcycles come a close second at 54 per cent, according to the survey.
The findings of the NFHS-5, conducted among 6,64,972 families, or households, were released earlier this month. It was carried out by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Around 3.7 per cent of the country’s families were found to own animal-driven carts, while about 20 per cent did not own any mode of transport.
The NFHS-5 data also revealed a regional disparity in the number of households owning cars.
While low incomes are often linked with the absence of car ownership, experts say having a car should not be viewed as a sign of prosperity. Road infrastructure, they added, should also take into consideration the needs of cyclists, who help the environment by reducing emissions.
From 1.6% in 1998-99, car owners now 8% of Indian families
Before the 1990s, owning a car was a herculean task in India. Loans were fewer, and automobile brands limited.
Despite the comparative ease of getting a car in light of the economic reforms introduced in the 1990s, the increase in the number of car owners in the country has been slow.
The first NFHS, conducted in 1992-93, revealed that barely 1 per cent of families owned cars. Motorcycles and scooters, meanwhile, were owned by 8 per cent of families, with 42 per cent of the surveyed households owing bicycles.
By 1998-99, when the second round of the NFHS was conducted, about 1.6 per cent of families owned cars. Nearly 47.8 per cent owned bicycles.
By 2005-06, the number went up to 56.5 per cent for bicycle owners and 2.8 per cent for car owners. Since then, the percentage of families owning a bicycle has remained around 55 per cent, but the number of families owning a car has jumped to 8 per cent.
The number of car-owning families is higher in cities — around 14 per cent of families surveyed in urban India (for NFHS-5) own cars, against 4 per cent in rural India.
That the penetration of cars in India is lower than in many developed countries has been admitted by Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant. In 2018, Kant said 22 people per-thousand population owned cars in India, as compared to over 500 in Japan, Canada and the UK.
Lower per capita income of Indians has been cited as one reason for this.
Then there is maintenance and fuel charges — more for a four-wheeler than a two-wheeler.
According to NFHS data, about 11 per cent of Indian households owned a motorcycle or scooter in 1998-99, which went up to 19 per cent by 2005-06 and 40.6 per cent by 2015-16.
The NFHS-5 data also shows a huge regional disparity in car ownership in India.
Goa and Kerala have the highest percentage of families owning cars. In Goa, almost one in two households (46 per cent) owns cars, whereas the number is one in four (or 26 per cent) in Kerala.
Hill states and Union territories also have a higher percentage of families with cars. These places also showed the highest rural-urban gap in car ownership. (See chart)
While one in every four families (24 per cent) in Jammu and Kashmir owns a car, 23.5 per cent of households in Himachal Pradesh are car owners.
In Punjab, about 23 per cent of families own a car. Nagaland, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Delhi are among the states/UTs where at least one in five households — more than 20 per cent — own a car.
Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal have fewer car-owning families. Only 2 per cent of families in Bihar own a car, while the number is 2.7 per cent for Andhra Pradesh and 2.8 per cent in West Bengal.
West Bengal has the highest number of bicycle-owning families — 83 per cent — while in Bihar the number is 69 per cent.
Andhra Pradesh has a lower percentage of cycle-owning households (about 34 per cent), but more than 52 per cent of families here own a scooter or motorcycle.
According to a study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) titled ‘Benefits of cycling in India’, by 2015-16, about 23 per cent of working Indians in urban areas did their daily travelling on foot and 13 per cent depended on bicycles. This means 36 per cent of the working population in urban India at the time used non-motorised systems to commute.
Only 4 per cent of urban Indians used cars for their commute to work, while 17 per cent used motorised two-wheelers and 11 per cent depended on public transport (buses), the report added.
Due justice to cyclists
Even with just 14 per cent families in urban India owning cars, however, the cities are often in the news for their terrible traffic conditions.
Four Indian cities made it to the TomTom traffic index‘s list of the world’s 21 most-congested cities in 2020. The index is based on the evaluation of 404 cities across 58 countries.
According to Sharif Qamar, Area Convenor, Transport and Urban Governance, at TERI, India’s road expansion policy has been biased towards car owners and the country needs to give due respect to the cyclists, who, he said, will be at the forefront of helping India deliver its sustainable development goals.
In the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, India pledged to reduce emissions by 32-35 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, among other goals. The country also committed to net-zero emissions by 2070 at the UNFCCC’s 26th Conference of Parties (COP) in Glasgow last year.
“All the spending on expanding roads, building flyovers, adding more and more lanes, underpasses etc, are majorly done for car owners, who do not form the majority of a city’s dwelling. This makes the spending on transportation skewered towards motorists. I think it’s time India also starts looking at the needs of the silent majority — cyclists and pedestrians — who benefit us in many ways,” he said.
Instead of viewing car ownership as a symbol of prosperity, he added, India must spend money on developing infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians.
“More than the 8 per cent families owning cars, we must look at the 55 per cent cycle owning households and provide them dedicated lanes, enforce traffic rules to ensure their safety, sensitise people towards cycle ownership — that is don’t look down upon them, and push awareness,” he said.
Cycling, he pointed out, “offers health benefits, is economical and also good for the environment”.
“Even if we are able to shift some motorists to (using) cycles or public transit, we may be able to resolve congestion and parking problems up to a great extent. Adding more and more cars in our not-so-efficiently-designed cities is not going to be sustainable in the long run,” he said.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)