Sales of used cars in India are rising. Photo: AFP/Indranil Mukerjee

Sales of used cars have picked up in India, particularly among commuters who fear catching the coronavirus on crowded public transport.

With the virus cutting a swathe through India, many people have become afraid of using crowded buses and trains, and even taxis, to get to their jobs and are opting to buy second-hand, or used, cars or motorbikes.

Many see having their own transport as one way to avoid contact with those carrying the virus, and this group includes those who cannot afford to splash out on a new car. Travel remains a major concern in India as lockdown restrictions are lifted to enable the resumption of economic activities.

For Rachit Sahni, 28, a New Delhi-based executive who had been planning to buy a car, the unrelenting increase in the number of Covid-19 cases, as well as asymptomatic carriers unknowingly spreading the virus, pushed him to buy a car when the lockdown was lifted.

“I was looking around for a good deal, but post lockdown I got aggressive and bought a car, mainly for the security it’ll give me and my family,” said Sahni, who commutes almost 50 kilometers each day from his Malviya Nagar residence in Delhi to Gurugram for work.

An affordable used car has increased his sense of safety and security, and that of his family.

“Taking a cab is out of the question because it’s not readily available. Then one is never sure of it being virus-free, sanitized, or whether the earlier passenger was a patient, or was just carrying an infection without his own knowledge,” Sahni said.

“There are so many people who’ve contracted Covid-19 and recovered without even being aware of it. In an odd case, only one from a couple tested positive. So, it’s weird and can’t be messed around with.”

The fear of the invisible predator is pushing many to take extra precautions. Of course, there are also some who swing to the other end of the pendulum and become careless.

Sahni figured that a quick, inexpensive, best option for him was to buy a used car, which he had thoroughly sanitized before use and which now carries a sanitizer.

Used car dealers have seen an increase in business. It’s something car companies won’t like, as they battle to offset their slowest sales in a decade.

The Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) said sales in India dipped 63% between April and July, compared with a year ago. During April-July, 336,513 vehicles were sold, compared with 902,799 last year in the same period.

Increased sales of used cars may not necessarily mean higher sales of new cars, dealers say. For most people, lockdowns ate up their income streams, increased their liabilities and responsibilities and with uncertain futures, few have surplus money to splurge on new cars.

One dealer, Naresh Khuttan, who buys and sells used cars and motorbikes in New Delhi, says he can sense a sudden perk up in inquiries and demand.

“People are scared of using public buses or taxis with others so close around,” said Khuttan. Public buses in Delhi permit not more than 20 passengers at any given time, less than half the usual seating capacity.

Self-owned taxi operators too are selling off their vehicles as passengers are scared of using them. These cars also add to the pre-owned market pool, said Khuttan.

“No one’s even talking of the suburban train services,” said Khuttan. The Delhi state government is seeking to restart its suburban train system that has been shut for the past five months. Other states are not even exploring restarting suburban trains for the general public.

The motto is travel on your own terms and maintain strict social distancing.

“The biggest relief is for the family members,” he said. “If they travel for a festival on public transport or in a cab, they are putting their own lives at risk as also all members of the family they are visiting.”

Most people buying used cars are selling their scooters and motorcycles to fund their new acquisition. Adding to the supply of used cars are those making an opportunistic sale following a spurt in demand.

Sahni has kept his motorcycle for running errands. Also in demand is the lighter and smaller scooter that can be used by most members of a family, unlike a motorcycle, and consumes less fuel. But not everyone is tight-fisted.

Some are picking up good deals of pre-owned luxury cars. According to Jatin Ahuja, the managing director of Big Boy Toyz which sells pre-owned BMW, Porsche, Mercedes, and others, his sales have picked up post lockdown.