Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Great Indian Scooter

Many liberal economists have noted, correctly at that, that India's economic policy of import restrictions and extensive licensing protected corporations from inside and outside competition and thus removed all incentives for efficiency. This dampened the economic growth and held Indian public hostage to a dragging economy. I would briefly present a consumer's account of the negative effect of those protectionist policies. From a consumer point of view, inefficient corporations in a monopoly situation meant dealing with a company who did not give a damn to the customer. Customers were stuck with medevial age products with senseless features and no other options but to buy them and carry on with their lives. The Great Indian Scooter is an epic tale of such a product. This was the "Chetak" brand scooter made by Bajaj Auto. "Chetak" brand nomenclature was motivated by the legendary Stallion "Chetak" of great Rajput warrior Maharana Pratap, an unmatched symbol of patriotism, courage and strength of character. The Stallion was a fine animal with an uncanny poise and flair, as is mentioned in popular legends. The scooter on the other hand robbed many Indian men of their dignity. One amazing design feature in the scooter was that its engine was in the right side of the scooter body, in an extended trunk and the fuel tank was in the centre. So once you park the scooter, the fuel supply from the tank to engine would stop. I guess they were at same vertical levels as well, which warded off the force of gravity as well. In that case, when you would try to start the scooter again, you need to tilt it to the right side. This was to enable the fuel to flow back to the engine. And mind you, the tilt was not a gentle tilt, but a great one, until the right side of the trunk of scooter body would touch the floor. After few long duration tilts, you would expect the fuel to reach the carburettor and then you start kicking it to start. Imagine millions of Indian men tilting their scooters until it kisses the ground, doing it upright, kick starting it again. If they fail, they would tilt it again. And then again until it starts. Imagine people going in rush hour traffic, turning their scooter off at a traffic light. Light turns green but the scooter doesnt start and the rider is tilting it again and again while the drivers behind are making him deaf with swears and honking. He is nervous, irritated but with heightened sense of urgency, he is busy tilting his scooter. The situation would be more traumatic if the man would be with his girlfriend or wife. While the man is busy in the ritual of tilting, untilting and kick-starting his scooter, the lady would stand by the side, visbily irritated, annoyed at the scooter and her partner and wondering what the hell. The bystanders and passersby would not let go of an opportunity to pass sarcastic smiles, making more embarrassing for the man. Their smile would give a statement like this - Poor bastard, cant afford a motorcycle. The lady should come with us instead of you. You hell of a loser. (The motorcycle has an engine in center and the fuel tank in center as well, at an elevated position) While you had to tilt the scooter to the RIGHT side in most cases, there was one more problem. If, when you parked, you left the Petrol supply knob on, there was a danger that scooter would slip into the "Over" mode. This was a particular problem with old models and effectively it meant that the carburettor has got more fuel than necessary and hence the fuel air mixture is too saturated with fuel not optimal for combustion. The solution to that problem was to tilt the scooter to LEFT. So depending upon the situation, you either tilt it to left or to right. But tilt you nevertheless. Two-Three generations of middle class, town residing Indian men grew up tilting their scooters. I thank heavens that there were no F-1 race counterparts in Scooters. Thought of racing riders tilting their scooters at pit-stops is too painful to bear. And the Company could not bother changing the design since there was no competition. Even after tilting it to the core, people were buying. There was no alternative. After few years, it seemed normal to see men tilting their scooters on Highways, on traffic lights, on streets and so on. People were conditioned. On competition, LML Vespa offered some competition but while its engine-carburettor was in right order, it was not rugged enough. As far as I understand, the situation improved only with introduction of scooters by Honda and some other firms. Disclaimer: Even after being a Mechanical Engineer, I have not studied the design of the scooter in detail and the point of view given above is driven by my own experience and experiences of fairly large number of friends. However, this sample set cant be absolutely unbiased and in no way can it reflect completely and truthfully on the Scooter techonology of Bajaj and their ideas and attitude towards their customers. I would hence sincerely apologize for any ignorance or biased statements on my part.