Road tip

March 15th, 2010

One morning in Mumbai in February a friend and I leapt into his trusty Hyundai Getz at 5 am to commence a driving tour of southern Maharashtra. The first stage was to be a pelt down the national highway towards Belgaum. The friend being a details fiend, everything was planned down to the minute.

Pretty soon this best-laid scheme of us nice men gang seriously aft agley. On the long, long upslope before Khopoli on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, suddenly the engine appeared to stop transmitting power to the wheels. Stamping on the accelerator did nothing but make noise, and then we caught a whiff of something burning. Miserably, we pulled over, got out and threw open the hood.

It was still dark, and slightly chilly. We had halted on a turn. Giant container trucks crawled past with their engines screaming against the gradient. Neither of us knew anything about car innards, so my friend got on the phone to find a Hyundai service centre. Nothing in Khopoli, it turned out, nothing closer than Panvel, an hour away in the wrong direction. Towing charges in the thousands, repair charges in yet more thousands, time wasted in waiting.

While my friend was still working the phone, scarcely two minutes after we had stopped, a scruffy-looking man on a beat-up scooter trundled to a stop next to us. A mechanic, he said, with a repair shop just down the road, and he would fix what he said was a burnt-out clutch plate for thousands less than the service-centre quotes and in much less time. A quiet fellow, not much of a talker, with a humorous glint in his eye.

So that’s what we did. The mechanic left his scooter on the verge, we pushed the car to a gap in the expressway median and then coasted a good way downhill, off the main highway onto the old highway, off that onto a bumpy patch of land and finally into a tiny, lean-to garage. The mechanic had already called one of his colleagues standing by at the parts store, so the parts (original, we checked) soon arrived at high speed on another beat-up scooter. With the mechanic at the shop and a spare colleague, that made four men working on the car.

Day broke, a tea shop was the only other structure nearby, and we sipped and chatted relaxedly while the work continued. When it was done, the first mechanic hopped into the car with us, drove us back onto the expressway and up to an ATM. We gave him the cash, he waited for us to leave, then hopped onto the scooter of one of his colleagues who had followed us from the garage to head back, and that was that. We were on our way again, major repair complete, a mere four hours after the breakdown.

The point is: in India, the unorganised sector is often more efficient than the organised sector can ever hope to be, and much more responsive to the customer’s needs. The mechanic described their business method. One man circles back and forth on one section of the expressway, while another stands by at the parts stores and a third at the garage. Cars will break down, especially under the strain of a long climb; when they do, help (and profit for the mechanics) is only minutes away. The company service centres lose horribly in this scenario, by being more distant, more expensive, less personal, and less responsive. Had we chosen the service centre in Panvel, we would have lost the day. Instead we got a good, economical repair job and a free lesson in grassroots business thinking.

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