Tata Nano


Today, Tata motors unveiled the “1 lakh car”: the Tata Nano. Even though it does not include the 12.5% tax, one lakh rupees are only worth roughly three thousand Australian dollars or eighteen hundred Euros. This is a very cheap car; in fact it is the world’s cheapest car.

Tata Nano Of course, for that price (Rs 100,000), although it has four doors and can fit five people, it is a relatively small car and with its 623cc engine, it does not go beyond the 105km/h mark. For comparison, an auto-rickshaw costs Rs. 60,000. So it did make the Indians very proud as the news literally invaded the newspapers and television screens, moving the sacrosanct cricket news to the second page despite the Australian Cricket tour controversy. But there is another reason why Indians are so proud of this achievement.

Five years ago, Ratan Tata, the Tata group chairman announced at the 2003 Geneva Auto show that the group intended to produce a small car for that price tag. No one seriously believed that it could be possible. But Tata was determined, and thanks to the effort of a team of five hundred engineers who made a number of design innovations to cut the costs, they managed to reach their objective and steal the show at the Delhi Auto Expo. This was clearly presented as an Indian success story in the newspapers where a team of Indian defy the odds thanks to ingenuity – this type of story does strike a chord in India, and people sounded generally quite enthusiastic.

But then when Tata was asked about congestions and emissions, his answer was:

“I am not responsible for building infrastructure and we have met all emission standards”

It is certainly a fair question. Congestion, for one, is a major problem in India’s large cities. A lot of the infrastructures in India seem to have been produced ad hoc and was only sufficient to cope with a limited flow of rickshaws, two-wheelers and other less conventional vehicles. But the surge in car ownership in the last few years has clogged the streets. Traffic at peak hour time can bring the city to a standstill.

“The average speed on a Bombay car journey is no more than twenty kilometres an hour. On Marine Drive, the one road where people can really open up their cars, the average speed declined from a sedate fifty-six in 1956, to forty in 1979, and to a crawling twenty-five in 1990.” – Maximum City, Suketu Mehta

The Bombay newspapers recently reported that the average speed now rarely exceeds fifteen kilometres an hour. But even outside cities, it is hard to see how people will be able to drive cars. Our experience of travelling in India was that it was virtually impossible to go from one city to another faster than 30 km/h.

Corruption also seems to have impeded the development of proper infrastructure in large cities. In Delhi, a new bypass was built but no official has been willing to open it for months, forcing thousands of cars in the already overcrowded streets. Reasons for refusing to open the bypass remain obscure; it has been reported that it is because no one wants to be associated with the bypass if it fails to address the congestion problem. This is not a very satisfying answer. In the mean time, people will have to contend with the strange sight of a long queue of cars barely moving right underneath an empty highway.

kol-rickshaws.jpg As another example, taxi rides can be easily organised from within the modern airport of Chennai, and there are dozens of panels directing passengers to the taxi stand. There is also the usual crowd of rickshaw drivers offering prices similar to taxis, around 250 rupees – much more than the 8 rupees train ticket. But there is not one sign indicating the way to the train station that is no more than 500 metres from the airport. The presence of a train station is not obvious because it is hidden by the highway. The tunnel that leads to the station is not lit and its entrance is at the back of the parking lot, and there is no sign to it either. Airport staff are generally unhelpful if you ask, suggesting you cross the highway; taxi and rickshaw drivers will play deaf or send you in the wrong direction. There seemed to be a deliberate attempt to divert passengers from the train station. Never mind that the streets of Chennai are just as clogged as those of other cities.

When it comes to carbon emissions, India’s per capita (1.2 t CO2) is still below the world’s average (4.5 t CO2) and well below that of industrialised countries (11.5 t CO2) – the per capita carbon footprint in the United States is fifteen times that of India. Sixty years ago, Mahatma Gandhi reflected on how many planets might be needed if India were to follow Britain’s pattern of industrialisation. Nowadays, with the dream car ownership getting one step closer to the average Indian and a consumer culture developing as the economy booms, the Indian carbon emissions are threatening to become a real concern for global climate security. India is already the world’s fourth largest emitter, and its global emissions have nearly doubled in the last fifteen years and are set to rise even faster.

This is probably why Dr R K Pachauri and other experts voiced some concern over the impact of the car on the environment and urban congestion. Dr Pachauri heads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which won the Nobel Prize in 2007. Of course, he does not deny the right to own a car, but promoting low-cost cars in a context where infrastructures are already struggling and when efforts should be made to reduce carbon emissions may not be the most environmentally responsible idea. According to The Telegraph (of Kolkata) of 11 January 2008:

“India has over 60 million vehicles on the roads today, and, if current trends remain unchecked, this figure is likely to increase ten-fold to more than 600 million vehicles by 2030”

This is clearly an unmanageable number of vehicles both in terms infrastructure and environment – the air quality in large cities is already noticeably bad. I note that Tata Motors which made its name with diesel engine is not the only one to blame; carmakers have been eyeing India as an enormous untapped market ever since the economy started to boom. Just like Hollywood promoted the American dream last century, Bollywood promotes the Indian dream – and that dream includes a car. The car has become the symbol of social success.

Indians certainly have every right to improve their lifestyle to match that of other developed nations, but by selling the dream, industrials might turn Indian cities and roads into an environmental nightmare. In a place like India, environmental disasters are both immediate and devastating. In many ways, the Tata Nano could also be seen as a symbol of India’s dilemma for the years to come, that a choice between pursuing the unsustainable lifestyle of that in the West putting further strain on already an stretched environment and infrastructure that India can ill afford, or through a typical Indian blend of ingenuity and perseverance inventing new ways to solve the problem.