Unless you have been living under a rock recently (hey, nice way to start a blog post, insult your reader(s)), you must have heard of the Tata Nano, the much ballyhooed cheapest car ever built. People ask me (after all, I am Indian and pretend to know a lot about the environment) what I think of the Nano. Well, it’s hard to summarize in an elevator pitch. Obviously, given the state of public transportation in the cities, people want private vehicles to travel in, more convenient, fewer people to jostle against, etc. People previously riding scooters and motorcycles (and carrying entire families in a two wheeler) would prefer this car. But, traffic’s going to get worse, and cars occupy a lot of road space while not carrying that many people.
Anyway, my thoughts aside, Sunita Narain (one of India’s most famous environmental activists) and director of The Center for Science and Environment (India’s most active Environmental NGO) writes one of her typically insightful editorials in Down to Earth, the CSE’s flagship publication.
Let’s take the ‘affordability’ question first. The fact is that cars—small or big—are heavily subsidized. The problem is that when economists (including those who run the government) fret and fume about mounting subsidy bills, they think of farmers—fertilizer, electricity and food—not our cars. But subsidy is what they unquestionably get.The subsidy begins with the manufacture of cars. When we read about the Singur farmers’ struggle to stop government from acquiring their land for the Tata car factory we don’t join the dots. We don’t see this as the first big subsidy to motorization. The fact is, in Singur the manufacturer got cheap land, interest-free capital and perhaps other concessions—the Left Front government in West Bengal never made public full details of its attractive package. This brought down the cost of production and allowed the manufacturer to price the Nano at Rs 1 lakh
All very true. Cars are heavily subsidized, taxation, parking, you name it, money quote…
Since cars take up over 75 per cent of the road space, even though they move less than 20 per cent of the people, it is obvious whom this expenditure benefits the most.
Yes, cars are not a very efficient way to move people, they’re convenient because Indian cities are not being planned to prioritize public transport that is convenient, safe and clean. India’s per capita income (nominal) is about a $1000 per year and the nano, even in its cheapest form, is about 3 years worth of the average income. So, your average Indian, even if she lives in a city and makes twice this average, will not buy this car. So, she’s stuck on the bus which crawls ever so slowly due to all these nanos flitting about. Or, she’s on a scooter/bike facing ever increasing pollution due to these cars and risking life and limb as traffic pushes vehicles closer and closer together.
But of course, this seems to be the pattern of development and optimists will argue that at some point in time, the infrastructure will catch up to the point that there will be room for all these cars and money for all the people to buy all these cars. But as Ms. Narain points out, 20% of Delhi is already covered with roads (hard to get that number in context though, I have no idea what percent of NYC is road covered, for instance!), so finding room to build more roads is going to be hard.
Something’s gotta give, I don’t know what!