Nano Car. Big Questions.

Jan 11, 2009
*Special to asia!

Is Ratan Tata a hero or a villain? His Tata Nano car is set to put India’s lower-middle class on wheels with its unbelievably low price, but at what cost to the environment?

In its haste to put down Ratan and the Nano, the Los Angeles Times has defeated its own argument without realising it. By its own admission, America has nearly 250 million cars. This is, should the magazine have bothered to point out, is about a third of the world’s total. And that’s not all. American cars are in general bigger and less fuel-efficient than cars elsewhere (think of the Hummer and all the SUVs, or sport-utilities vehicles, driving across the country). As a result, nearly half of the world’s automobile carbon and sulphur emissions come from America, a country with only 5% of the world’s population. And Americans are buying bigger and bigger cars, a trend helped, and in no small dose, by enthusiastic car reviews in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time, Newsweek and others which criticise the Nano.

This is hypocrisy at its worst – the "do as I say and don’t do as I do" attitude of the developed world that has so upset the developing world and widened the gap between the two.

This is not to say, of course, that the world would be a better place if there are suddenly a few million more Nanos on the roads of India, Africa and South America. Individually each Nano may give out a relatively small amount of greenhouse gas. Collectively they do contribute to global warming and climate change; and the world climatic system, already fragile from all the man-made damages, would be much worse from it.

But the Western media has adroitly sidestepped the question of why the poor are not to own cars while the rich can do so with no compunction. Does the stockbroker on Wall Street, the banker in Frankfurt or the farmer in Australia have a greater right to own a car than those who earn a tiny fraction of their income?

New York Times and gang may disagree, but the answer – if the world is to move on co-operatively and not in the mutual destructive fashion which Osama bin Laden and George Bush have set for a large segment of humanity – has to be that everyone in the world has the same right to own a car, provided he or she can afford it. Ratan has provided the affordability. The world now has to deal with consequences.

There can be no doubt that the world would be heading towards disaster if car growth is allowed to go on unfettered. But the point must also be recognised that most of the cars are now in the West and pockets of developed economies elsewhere. Rising prosperity in highly populated countries (particularly the so-called BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India and China) has created a new class of car owners. And Ratan’s Nano has created yet another class. They are the lowest of the lot but they can, too, afford to buy a car. And even if everyone in the developing countries were to buy a car, the total number of purchases – constrained by capacity –would still be limited. It will take a decade, if not more, before the number of cars in the developing world is able to catch up with that of the First World. (India now has about 12 million cars among its population of 1 billion. America has 250 million cars for a population of 300 million.)

Ratan is 70. In his lifetime he may not live to see the number of cars in India surpassing that of the United States’. But he would see the Nano replacing scooters, motorbikes and mopeds on the streets of India, with numerous families able to travel in comfort. This is a great achievement, and it would be inhumane for others to try to prevent this from happening. (Of course, the Indian government would need to upgrade its roads to cater for increased traffic, but that is another matter altogether.)

Ratan’s Nano has pushed the issue of the poor owning cars to the forefront. This is an issue to be faced, collectively, by all the drivers and would-be drivers in the world, as well as by world leaders, carmakers and anyone who feels that he or she has a stake in it.

There are a few sides to this issue. The first is the use of petrol-driven internal combustion engines. Be it the Nano or the Hummer, cars still spew out gases that warm the earth. There is an urgent need to develop cleaner alternatives. The urgency is too strong, and the stakes too high, to leave it to individual carmakers to decide if they want to go green. There must be a concerted effort to neutralise the impact of car emissions.


But any such alternative takes time. Technology is, by nature, unpredictable. It may take only a few years, or it may take decades, before the world has a viable alternative to fossil fuel. Meanwhile car exhaust is still fouling up the environment and upsetting weather patterns. From this perspective, the global car population needs to be contained – in the developed as well as the developing world. Such efforts have to be equitable; otherwise they would be doomed from the start. If America, with nearly a quarter of a billion cars, refuses to cap, let alone reduce, its car population, how can it reasonably expect India with its 12 million cars to do so?

Human nature is such that we are good at waxing lyrical about high-sounding ideas, as long as they don’t have an impact on our accustomed way of life. It is easy to talk about going "green". It is easy to condemn others for not doing so. It is extremely difficult when it comes to setting an example. After reading all the critical remarks on the Nano, Ratan is said to have smiled and asked, rhetorically,"Why don’t they complain about other cars?"

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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