After 5,000 years, the 1982 bullock cart

In this fastest growing of Indian cities, where scientists and engineers design and turn out space satellites and jet aircraft, the venerable bullock cart is getting a 20th-century overhaul.

The innovations developed for India's most ubiquitous form of transportation are not profound in space-age terms: shock absorbers to ease pressure on the animals' necks, roller bearings to help turn the heavy wooden wheels more smoothly, and foot-operated brakes.

But apply them to a design essentially unchanged for 5,000 years, says the Indian Institute of Management here, and the result could be significant improvement in the movement of goods and people in the countryside, where more than 70 percent of India's vast population lives and works. The snag right now would be how to finance such an innovation.

The idea, says V. A. P. Naik, bullock cart design project coordinator for the management institute, is to produce a more efficient cart that can haul heavier loads for longer distances with less strain -- and hence longer working lives -- for the animals.

An estimated 15 million bullock carts ply India's roads, including 3 million used for urban transport and 12 million in the countryside. By comparison India has only 468,000 trucks -- fine for paved roads but of little use in moving farm produce, goods, and people among the 421,624 villages not yet connected by motorable roads. According to one study of animal cart usage in rural India, more than 60 percent of rural transport of goods and passengers depends solely on bullock carts.

The carts are basically short-haul vehicles, carrying average loads of half a ton each. But together, according to varying estimates, they carry 10 to 30 percent as much tonnage as the entire Indian railway system, the largest in Asia.

''In this jet age, people refer to bullock carts as symbols of the past,'' Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told a United Nations conference on new and renewable sources of energy last year. ''However, in India, animals provide more power than all our powerhouses.''

In the works for five years under Indian government funding, the Indian Institute of Management's bullock cart design project has yielded three improved models. One is intended for transport of farm goods, another is fitted out with seats and extra springs for passengers, and a third is specially adapted for hauling in hilly areas. A few sample models have been field-tested by farmers, changed in line with their comments and criticisms, and sent out for further testing.

This year, Naik says, ''We will be releasing these designs and drawings so that anybody can copy them, manufacture them, and propagate them.'' He says the designs are simple enough to be copied easily by the small-scale carpenters and blacksmiths who build the bulk of India's bullock carts.

The catch, however, is that improvements like shock absorbers, brakes, and roller bearings cost extra money -- nearly $80, according to the project's engineers. It is a huge sum for poor farmers in a nation where per capita income averages $190 a year. Proportionately, too, it's a heavy additional investment on top of about $165 for a pair of medium-size bullocks and about $350 to $400 for a traditional farm cart.

''There's no margin for the villager to buy even the small luxuries like an improved cart,'' Naik acknowledges. Unfortunately, he adds, ''It's not possible to make a cart which is cheaper and more efficient.'

The only answer, he says, is for the government to subsidize the cost of the improved carts for poor farmers. ''Anything new people are afraid to take up. You need both heavy subsidies and propaganda,'' Naik says, noting that India's traditional farmers took 5 to 10 years to accept fertilizers even at giveaway prices.

So far, however, neither public nor private development agencies have stepped forward with subsidies or extension services to help push the better bullock carts.

This is a project where perhaps international development funds could help.

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