A Car For Every Indian – Questions Posed By The Tata Nano

12jan08-tata-nano-car-small.jpg“Citizens cannot be denied the comfort they deserve, innovators the recognition

A couple of days back, the Tata’s launched the much hyped 1 lakh car, the Nano. The car is believed to be the cheapest in the world and is expected to revolutionize travel in India. The car looks good and also seems to come with a decent set of features. Considering that hardly any Indian companies consider research and innovation a priority, the Nano is a significant achievement for the Tatas.

The Indica was launched in a market that wasn’t very competitive, however that isn’t true about the car market today. The Tata’s belief in the Nano’s ability to take on global competition and the years of effort that has gone into creating the Nano, sure make the venture one of the most admirable in recent times. This is amply reflected through the 100s of positive comments about the car, Ratan Tata and Tata Motors that are all over the Internet.

The Nano is also good for the spirit of India. Businesses and entrepreneurs can find motivation in the fact that innovators get loads of appreciation from Indian society. For the general public, just knowing that India can develop and produce its own cars is a good morale boost. I am sure there would be many youngsters wanting to work for Tata Motors one day, primarily because of the innovation displayed by the company in recent years.

Having said that, the Tata small car has also come in for a lot of criticism not just from those opposed to the car manufacturing plant in West Bengal but also from many environmentalists. The criticism from environmentalists spawns from the fact that it is pretty much a certainty that cars like the Nano will kill Indian cities. Looking at the capabilities of our administration, we can be quite sure that the infrastructure will not match the rapid growth in vehicles. Even if the infrastructure did scale up fast enough, more roads and more cars are essentially eco-unfriendly. In the climate change story, cars are the villains. India has lately adopted a number of American customs and it now looks all set to adopt the concept that has made America the biggest polluter in the world, that of one person one car. So the Nano sure is a great achievement, but is it good for India?

There are suggestions that the Nano should be heavily taxed so that it doesn’t stay cheap and become abundant. This seems improper because if Tata’s have succeeded in keeping their costs down, it’s not right to penalize them for their efficiency. Also it is not like alcohol or cigarettes where the society as a whole questions the judgement of the individual and so feels the need to regulate and discourage consumption.

When politicians don’t want people to think rationally they normally throw in an emotional argument that ensures that the brain is switched off and the heart decides. I will try something similar. A good friend of yours with his wife and two kids is driving down a overcrowded city road on his scooter. All four are breathing loads of pollution. The lady is somehow balancing the child, the father is sweating in his attempt to manouver his family safely home. They crash is the worst case scenario. But even if they don’t, the kids are being exposed to pollution that will have a serious long term impact on their health. The parents undergo tremendous stress in their attempt to ensure the well being of the family.

Would making a car available to 1000s of such families be a good thing or bad? Good for the individual but bad for the nation is what some might say. But what if the cheap car saves a 1000 innocent lives every year, of people who would have otherwise perished in the accident if they were riding a two wheeler? Is that a good enough return on investment for India? If families are not exposed to direct pollution as happens on a two-wheeler, would India benefit from the savings in healthcare?

India cannot deny its citizens comfort and security inherent to owning a car. So the option is to provide an even better alternative to the private car, one that’s people, city and environment friendly. Only a good public transport system seems to fit these requirements. India should aim for a situation where a person has to choose between public transport and a car and not a two wheeler. Public transport should be so obviously superior and convenient that the citizen uses his car only for luxuries like taking the family out for a picnic and never for his daily commute. For example, even with Mumbai’s mediocre public transport system, there are 1000s of car owners who prefer to use trains for their daily travel.

Can private enterprise play a role in improving the public transport mechanisms in India? Why not? The prospect of Tata Bus Transport (TBT) and a Reliance Bus Transport (RBT) competing to sell me a bus ticket for a Deccan Gymkhana to Lohegaon airport ride, sure sounds cool. Doesn’t seem very likely, but can’t deny that the prospect is exciting.

(Published as “A Car For Every Indian” on 12th Jan 07 in my fortnightly column for the Maharashtra Herald)¬†