Truckmaker puts Delhi’s roads on the map

Financial Times

October 29 2008

Vikram Lal saw a business opportunity where others saw only chaos. He is the driving force behind Eicher Maps, which in 1996 published the first comprehensive commercial street atlas of Delhi.

Even more detailed than the “A-to-Z” street atlas of London, the Delhi atlas, which numbers more than 200 pages, maps the city right down to individual houses. Many drivers now consider it indispensable for getting around Delhi.

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Newcomers to India’s big cities will be familiar with the experience of getting helplessly lost in unmarked, haphazardly planned streets. Finding a destination usually requires asking whoever is on the street – a vegetable seller, security guard or befuddled pedestrian – where to go.

Locating a house in a residential neighbourhood can also be an ordeal. Houses are marked by a jumbled system of letters and numbers that are not always ordered in sequence.

“There are so many streets in Delhi that don’t have names. Even if they do, they’re not used,” says Vikram Lal, former head of Eicher, the Delhi-based group known for its trucks and Royal Enfield motorcycles.

Yet Mr Lal saw a business opportunity where others saw only chaos. He is the driving force behind Eicher Maps, which in 1996 published the first comprehensive commercial street atlas of Delhi.

Even more detailed than the “A-to-Z” street atlas of London, the Delhi atlas, which numbers more than 200 pages, maps the city right down to individual houses. Many drivers now consider it indispensable for getting around Delhi.

Mr Lal, a native of the city, knows first-hand the frustrations of getting lost. The idea for Eicher Maps took root in the mid-1970s when he and his wife drove across Delhi to attend a dinner party. The two circled around the familiar neighbourhood of Defence Colony but could not find their destination.

“My wife has an acute sense of direction but we couldn’t find that particular house. We found the number before and after. This went on for an hour and then we just gave up and went home,” he says.

After that frustrating experience, Mr Lal vowed he would one day make a map of Delhi to save people from a “similar fate”. After nursing the idea for several years, he enlisted the help of S.M. Chadha, a retired surveyor-general of India, to begin mapping the city in 1993. The effort started as a hobby while Mr Lal was chairman of Eicher Motors, one of India’s largest truckmakers.

Eicher now has a small unit that publishes maps and tourist guidebooks. The map business earned about $93,000 (Rs3.9m) in profit on about $548,000 (Rs23m) in revenue last financial year. That is a drop in the bucket compared with Eicher Motor’s revenues of more than $600m last year – yet it more than meets Mr Lal’s simple objective of breaking even.

Colour-coded street atlases of Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore followed publication of the Delhi map. Eicher sells 10,000 to 15,000 street atlases for about $5-$7 each, along with 5,000 fold-out sheet maps a year.

While maps empower people by allowing them to get around on their own – a concept that is taken for granted in developed countries – the habit of using them is relatively new to India.

Mr Lal spent seven years in Germany in the 1960s studying and training as a mechanical engineer and became used to using maps to find his own way around strange cities. The contrast was stark when he went back to India.

“Like anyone else who returns [to India] from the US or Europe and finds there’s no way to get around without asking someone, it was very frustrating,” he says.

Visitors account for about half of sales of Eicher maps. “Anyone who has come out of the US, Europe and Japan must have a map,” says Mr Lal. “[Indians] who have gone abroad want to come back and use maps. There is a clear division of who our customers are.”

For those unfamiliar with using a map and alphabetical index listing 15,000 roads, neighbourhoods, buildings, hospitals and other points of interest, Eicher Maps includes rudimentary instructions on “how to use this book”. Even so, the concept is not an easy sell to the average driver in India. Sales of Eicher maps are relatively low for the thousands of new drivers taking to the streets. “Truckers don’t read maps,” says Mr Lal.

What began as a hobby proved to be an expensive and labour-intensive side project. In 1993, Eicher surveyed Delhi and collected data using “a whole army of people doing ground verification,” says Mr Lal. “In those days you didn’t have Google Earth. It was a very tedious job.”

People on the ground had to check locations of small streets, down to milk stands and water tanks. An initial budget of about $24,000 (Rs1m) ballooned to nearly $85,000 (Rs3.5m).

The instant success of the Delhi atlas in 1996 persuaded Mr Lal to extend the mapping project to other cities and branch out into tourist guidebooks. But because sales were unpredictable, in 1998 Eicher decided to begin taking contracts with state governments to publish local guidebooks. It has also created guidebooks for the Archaeological Survey of India.

In spite of the dire need for better navigation on Indian roads, Eicher maps remain a niche business and largely a pet project. Mr Lal has toyed with the idea of developing a global positioning system service. But the chaotic nature of Indian streets – where drivers routinely reverse on roundabouts or drive along breakdown lanes against traffic – does not lend itself well to GPS instruction.

“You have to know where vehicles can go, where they can turn around,” says Mr Lal. “You can’t have the driver end up in a ditch.”

Another challenge is the breakneck growth of Indian cities. New roads and swelling suburbs are transforming the landscape. Mr Lal notes that Eicher last year published a map of Noida, a fast-growing suburb east of Delhi, that is already out of date. “The area expanded,” he says. “Cities are growing so rapidly. It’s been a bit frightening.”

 

 

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