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Sunita Narain on the Tata Nano

nano.jpg 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

The Nano-flyover syndrome | Editor’s Page | Down To Earth magazine

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!

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  1. “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”

    Sunita Narayan probably doen’t know that this 20% of the population (who the roads serve) constitute approximately 100% of the taxpayers.

    BTW ppl who make $1000 or less anyways are exempted from any taxes, in spite of the fact that they use the road and electricty and everything else.

    And lets face it, if Tatas stop making cars for Sunitas and Mamtas of India, someone else will. Better that an Indian company makes cars for Indians and pollute the Inidian skies.

  2. Ahish: Everyone who buys anything in India pays tax, whether it is in the form of a VAT, or a sales tax. Consumption taxes, as opposed to income taxes, do not have any income level adjustments.

    The health effects of pollution caused by one activity (cars) and not paid for in full by the users of the activity (the drivers) also constitutes a tax burden on the poor.

    Anyway, you’re right. There’s no getting around the fact that people need cars now, and somebody’s going to have to make them, and it is better if Tata makes a small cheap car so the profits and jobs stay in India. The issue is that the internal combustion engine based private transportation model is now shown to exacerbate climate change, and increase other air pollution effects. One can hope for a different paradigm of development, which is all I can do.

    BTW, if I lived in India, I would drive a car as well, no questions asked, and so does Sunita Narain. It is not hypocritical to realize that something you’re doing (along with the rest of the world) is not necessarily great, but the alternatives are all worse.

  3. Hey…
    I, for one, don’t get the argument behind “The car pollutes, occupies space, carries fewer people – therefore, it should not be cheap and affordable”

    Yes, it is priced above the per capita income – but it sure cheaper than the rest – and therefore, a considerable option to a lot more people.

    So, is the ‘average Indian’ at risk only because the traffic is gonna increase thanks to the Nano?

    Finally, if only all those environmentalists give up their cars and SUVs…it would be a lot easier to buy their argument!

    Note: Came across ya blog while searching for info abt the Turtle walks in Chennai

  4. what’s the end result of the enquiry being conducted by the environment ministry into the harmful effects of mobile towers upon the environment does the govt. have the guts to take on mobile co. titans if there is positive proof that the signals being emitted from mobile towers is decimating the avian population of the country which way is the enquiry heading

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