22 August 2019
India has been witnessing double-digit growth in the number of motorbikes in recent years. Photo: Reuters
India has been witnessing double-digit growth in the number of motorbikes in recent years. Photo: Reuters

India: The new motorbike superpower

Apart from dull statistics, there are actually quite a lot of interesting tools to measure the level of economic development and standard of living of a particular country.

Some best-known examples of such measuring tools are the Big Mac index and the Starbucks index. However, as far as India is concerned, there is also the “motorbike index”.

One might still be able to remember that back in the 1980s, the bicycle was the most popular means of transport in mainland China.

But as the standard of living in the mainland continued to improve, motorbikes and scooters began to replace bicycles and started conquering the roads across the country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Today, more and more Chinese are buying their own cars. But there is a downside: the explosive growth in the numbers of cars has given rise to rampant traffic congestion and air pollution across the mainland.

As far as some countries such as India and Vietnam are concerned, they still pretty much remain at the “motorbike stage”.

Walking on the main streets in these countries, one would probably be reminded of how Shenzhen or Guangzhou looked like back in the ’90s.

India, in particular, has been witnessing double-digit growth in the number of motorbikes in recent years. Last year, India replaced China as the world’s largest market for motorcycles, with domestic sales surpassing 20 million units.

In China, meanwhile, domestic demand for motorbikes has continued to decline. Today nearly half of the brand-new motorbikes and scooters manufactured in the mainland are being exported to the United States and Europe for higher returns.

However, when it comes to second-hand motorbikes in China, many of them end up in India.

India is also one of the world’s largest producers of motorcycles. However, only 10 percent of them are for export, while the rest are for domestic sales, which can probably give you an idea of how enormous the Indian market for motorbikes is.

India’s colossal demand for motorbikes may, to some extent, suggest that its economic development still lags behind that of China, but it also indicates that it is catching up fast.

Apart from being a popular means of transport in India, the motorbike has also become a symbol of individualism and even, in the case of women, empowerment.

Indeed, motorbike manufacturers in India have been increasingly targeting the female market. As a result, more and more Indian women are buying their own motorcycles.

And female motorcyclists have become such a common sight across India that the phenomenon is now constantly reflected in Bollywood movies.

When it comes to the most popular foreign brand names in India, Honda and Suzuki are ranked the top 2, while two local brands, TVS and Hero, are also pretty popular.

Interestingly though, perhaps due to historical reasons, some old British motorbike brands, which have either gone bust back home or been acquired by foreign companies such as Royal Enfield and Ashok Leyland, are still in business today in India.

Nonetheless, as air pollution continues to worsen across India, it has become increasingly apparent that the country needs to replace motorbikes with something cleaner and more environmentally-friendly in the long run.

The Indian government has claimed that it is going to ban all fossil fuel vehicles by 2030.

But I think this goal is a little bit unrealistic. And since most Indian families still cannot afford to buy electric cars in the short run, India’s future may lie in “green electric bikes”.

Compared to electric cars, electric bikes need much less power to run and are a lot easier to manufacture.

The problem, however, is that India will have to substantially improve the reliability of its power grid first before it can promote the nationwide use of electric bikes.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 1

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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