May 03, 2004

Travel Safety in India

So now that I've decided to spend my summer in India, I get a lot of email from one of the coordinators that is full of do's and dont's to follow while abroad. It's actually a little difficult to keep track of everything, but today's email was particularly memorable (if you start to get bored with the email, at least scroll to the last line of the entry):

Here are some pointers concerning travel safety in India:


The following two areas are currently off bounds:

KASHMIR (terrorism directed at foreign tourists, among others);

NEPAL (civil war starting).

In addition, there are some rural areas inland from the Bay of Bengal in
the states of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkand, and Bihar, where Naxalite
(Maoist) groups operate. These are not tourist areas, and you are very
unlikely to be going there. But should you, get the advice of experienced
Indians, and take proper precautions, especially at night.

Otherwise, traveling in India is about as safe as in the US except for
traffic accidents, and the same precautions should be taken in Indian
cities as in American cities.


By an order of magnitude, young Americans in developing countries are more
likely to be injured or killed in vehicular accidents than by any disease
or combination of illnesses. Driving is of course on the left. Many Indian
drivers do not obey traffic laws and take horrendous risks. The death toll
per million miles is 30 times the toll in the U.S. The general rule on the
often poor Indian roads is that the bigger vehicle wins. In rough order of
safety, the following may be helpful:


Jet Airways (excellent, very safe domestic airline), Indian Air (not as
good, but generally safe), Alliance Air (a branch of Indian Air, uses older
planes), regional airlines (check with friends).


In general, trains are safe and very much part of the Indian
experience. Book well ahead, and ask friends for clarification of the
complex options available for ticketing. Some stations have special queues
for foreigners. By all means, if possible, take a long train trip in
India: it is very much part of an Indian experience. Most trains are
relatively slow: check before you book.


Large buses tend to be the safest (except in mountain regions), simply
because they destroy anything they hit. They come in many sizes, shapes,
and varieties; it is best to book through a travel agent, and to decide
well in advance when taking a long trip whether you want movies, a sleeper,
sit up, etc. Local buses are very cheap, and entail endless stops.


Hired cars with drivers and taxis are relatively safe, as India goes. The
driver knows that his life and livelihood depend on not destroying the car,
himself, and, incidentally, his passengers. Although he may take what to
you seem incredible risks, he usually knows what he is doing.


Extremely dangerous, especially when, like most Indian cars, they are
light, with a motor of less than 1000 cc. Especially dangerous is the
front seat of mini-vans. Seat belts are often non-existent.


These three-wheeled, usually two-stroke, vehicles are ubiquitous in Indian
cities and towns. They are extremely risky, with nothing between you and
the world except a piece of canvas. But once again, most auto rickshaw
drivers, whatever risks they may take, depend for their lives and
livelihood on not having accidents. Check and agree on fares before you
get on: overcharging is common.


Extraordinarily dangerous. Helmets are rare except in Delhi, where they
are mandatory. Riding pillion on an Indian friend's motorcycle is an
invitation to death or mutilation. Avoid it.


Don't: bicycles are fair game for all other vehicles, helmets unknown and

Remember the rule, *MIT interns are not allowed to drive any vehicle of any
kind in India.*


All pedestrians are fair game, and the instincts of people brought up in
America are totally wrong for Indian traffic, which moves on the
left. When crossing main streets in Indian cities, try to take the arm of
an Indian friend, who will be more expert in maneuvering than you are.

Despite these precautions, traveling in India is fun, generally safe, and
to be encouraged. But choose planes (very expensive), trains, or large
buses in preference to anything else. Train and bus travel, in particular,
will take you vast distances at low cost.

One final warning: when traveling in popular conveyances like trains and
buses, try not to carry valuable items (computers, cameras), and certainly
not visibly. Take a discreet padlock or chain to attach your belongings to
the vehicle. Travel light. Carry toilet paper, which will generally not
be available. Take Immodium to avoid embarrassment if your stomach goes bad.

But above all, have fun, enjoy the friendliness of Indians, and see the
great Indian countryside.

Posted by Michael at May 3, 2004 09:19 AM