Drinking and driving in India: party on, yaar

MUMBAI, India — Paras Turakhia, 26, earns enough money in Mumbai to have bought his first car — with his own sound system, iPod dock, “the works” — and employ a full-time driver.

But every Saturday, when Turakhia gets ready to spend a night on the town, he leaves behind his driver.

India is a land known for its nosiness, and Turakhia’s driver is in “constant contact” with the young man’s family, neighbors and business relationships. If Turakhia or his friends get a little sloppy one night, his driver is likely to spread the news around, the young man says.

Enter a new market opportunity in New India.

Turakhia, who grew up in Delaware and lost three friends to separate drinking and driving accidents, refuses to get behind the wheel himself. So he hires a chauffeur from Party Hard Drivers (PHD) for about 600 rupees ($13) to spend the night transporting him among Mumbai’s newest bars and clubs.

PHD, which began in December 2007, receives 2,000 calls a month from Mumbai’s relatively wealthy young people looking to have a fun night out but not jeopardize their safety, risk getting caught by the police or have to face gossipy neighbors.

“I basically have my own PH [Party Hard] driver every Saturday night,” Turakhia said. “He is the man, he’s my boy. He’s seen me at my best and at my worst.”

With his PHD chauffeur, Turakhia knows what happens in the car, stays in the car.

And yes, a lot happen in these cars.

Jai Shankar Pandey has been working for PHD since it launched and has gotten to drive BMWs, Mercedes, Land Cruisers, “everything — except trains and airplanes,” he says as he sits outside the Taj President hotel waiting for a customer.

He has had clients fool around in the backseat, vomit in the car and fall into such a deep sleep he had to forcibly wake them. One night, he had to drive around the city in circles for two hours because his client was so drunk he forgot his address.

The company, which has grown from 40 to 200 drivers, cannot keep up with demand for its service and only fills about 1,500 of its calls each month. Its success has been a result of a social and economic “transformation” in Mumbai, said one of its founders, Ankur Vaid.

“If we had started this company five years ago, people would have laughed at us,” he said.

The reasons for the change are many. Indians have become more responsible about road safety. More have the means to spend money on a driver. More bars and clubs have sprouted up offering fun night options. Perhaps most significantly, the police have cracked down on drinking and driving.

In the past, if someone was pulled over for reckless driving and a police officer could tell the person had been drinking, the driver could “negotiate” his way out of the situation, Vaid said. A “bad negotiator” would have had to pay the officer about 1,000 rupees ($22), and a good one could have walked away for a third of that, Vaid said.

But times have changed. After a string of bad accidents the Mumbai police began cracking down on drunk drivers in 2007. They now have checkpoints around the city set up to give suspected drivers breathalyzers. Drivers who fail the test face fines, loss of their license and possible jail time.

“Before the law was not so stringent so I used to drive, which was not good,” said Dwarkesh Jhaveri, sitting in the back of his Ford Fiesta as a PHD chauffeur brings him home on a recent Thursday night. Jhaveri says he and most of his friends now use the service every time they go out drinking with friends or colleagues as they do not want to get a ticket or get into an accident. “It’s not worth it,” he said.

Drinkers like Jhaveri and Turakhia can book a driver and not worry about the night.

"The best part about it is you can get so drunk,” Turakhia said. “We like open up a little bar in the back of my car, and we're going through checkpoints and are like, ‘We have a driver!’”

While Mumbai has seen rapid economic growth, and business opportunities have caused Indians like Turakhia to move to a country their parents left a generation ago, many of the social customs have not changed as quickly. PHD shuttles people to fancy bars where beautiful women in miniskirts drink martinis, yet it allows them to respect certain cultural norms. For example, most young people here live with their families who find it unacceptable if they crashed at a friend’s and did not come home.

The company’s biggest challenge so far has been finding, training and retaining enough quality and trustworthy drivers. Another challenge has been attracting the very young crowd who may still have a sense of invincibility, Vaid said. Most of the clients are 25 to 45 years old.

The three partners, who are in their late 20s and are friends from high school, plan to expand their service in the next couple years to cities across India.