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Driving and Public Transport for Expats in India

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: September 2013

Driving

India has a reputation for being in a state of organised chaos, and this is probably best reflected on its roads. Except for the ‘organised’ part, that is. Entropy reigns supreme, and aggressive, very bad driving is the norm. Instead of co-operating, Indian drivers seem to be competing with each other, using any tactic they can think of to get ahead of the car in front. Unsurprisingly, the rate of accidents on the road is the highest in the world.

If you’re still determined to drive in India, your home country’s licence is not valid; you will need an International Driving Permit. Driving in India is technically on the left, though for many drivers, anywhere will do.

Rather than driving yourself, you could consider hiring a car with a driver. Hire rates include the driver’s return journey, so it may be worth considering a round trip. You may be expected to provide the driver with some food money when you eat; since their pay is very low, this seems only fair.

Alternatively, you can consider taking a taxi. Many taxis in India are state-owned, and all are required to be registered. Note that the system for ordering taxis varies from city to city and state to state. In some places, only telephone ordering is allowed, elsewhere you are free to hail taxis. In airports and major train stations you can even prepay for taxis.

Nippier than a car or taxi is the automated rickshaw, usually abbreviated to ‘auto’. The safety level of auto drivers can be variable, but this is probably a somewhat safer means of transport than driving your own car. To avoid being conned, it is best to check the auto has a meter and just go by that, checking the amount quoted at the end with the drivers ‘rate card’. Prices are a bargain at around ₹10 per mile.

In all cases of hiring transport, it is important to establish that the driver is genuine. Drivers of any of these hired forms of transport are unlikely to speak any more than rudimentary English, so you may have to get creative with sign language.

Public Transport

Whichever way you travel, allow plenty of time for delays in India. No-one is in any particular hurry, except possibly you, and other unacclimatised expats.

Trains

Indians are proud of their state-owned railway system. The network, dating back to the British Raj, is the longest in the world and covers most Indian cities. Train travel is safe, though not particularly punctual. Fares are very low if you are prepared to use standard class, though you may have to sit on the roof. If you don’t fancy train surfing, prices are still reasonable even on luxury and express trains. It is important to book your ticket well in advance, especially for long-distance travel. Travelling long-distance by train is generally cheaper than flying and gives you the opportunity to get a real flavour of India, the country and its people.

Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore currently have metro systems. As a sign of India’s economic development, many more are being built. Those in Gurgaon and Jaipur are due to be completed in 2013, with more in Chennai, Mumbai and Navi Mumbai (New Bombay) next year.

Buses and Coaches

Buses account for about 90% of all the vehicular journeys made in Indian cities. They are cheap and plentiful, and probably your best option when making regular journeys around a city such as commuting. The enormous bus fleet is slowly undergoing improvements, and air-conditioning and express buses are now available.

Planes

India is a large country and flying is certainly an option if you want to travel long-distance. This is especially true if you are travelling to mountainous states or the outlying islands.

Note however that, due to overcrowding, queues at check-in and security can be very long. You’ll need to allow plenty of time and try to be patient. In winter in the North, further delays may be caused by fog.

Air India, the state-owned airline, has flights scheduled across India, with smaller cities being covered by Air India Regional. There are now also several low-cost airlines, some of which are very cheap. As with the railways, you’ll pay less for an air fare the earlier you book.

 

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