Buy a car for $2,500; destroy the world

One of the most reprehensible hours in TV history occurred on March 18, 2001 — the airing of the fourth episode of “The Lone Gunmen,” the short-lived “X-Files” spinoff about three conspiracy-mongering oddballs who conduct their own investigations into government skullduggery (usually through sophisticated computer hacking), the results of which they publish in a newsletter titled, of course, The Lone Gunman (a reference to a contention at which JFK assassination conspiracy theorists scoff).

This one episode involves the covering up — by evil oil companies, who else? — of a car that runs on water. (This may seem silly, but demonizing Big Oil is easy that it’s hard for a lazy screenwriter to resist, so fine.) The objectionable part comes at the end of the episode, when the three Gunmen find the car’s prototype and test it to find that it works!

So what do they do then? They decide to keep it under wraps lest too many people acquire such an easy and inexpensive form of transportation, which would lead to an environmental catastrophe. Of course, this is functionally the exact same thing that the oil companies did, but as long as it’s done for noble motives, rather than profits, it’s worthy of praise. Saving the poor from themselves. Nice.

Thankfully, that was fiction, but art imitated life last week. On January 8, India’s Tata Motors unveiled the world’s cheapest car, which will retail for about $2,500. A new means of transport may be good news for the poor — but don’t tell green activists, some of whom are already complaining. As the Observer reports:

Last year just over one million cars and seven million motorbikes were sold in India. Tata wants to transform some of those motorbike buyers into car owners and believes that the company can eventually sell up to a million People’s Cars a year. Analysts say the project could revolutionise car prices, not just in India, but globally. Several other manufacturers have similar products in the pipeline.

These figures alarm environmentalists, already concerned by the congestion and rising pollution levels in India’s overcrowded cities. The Tata car is expected to sell for a few hundred pounds more than the most popular motorbikes and less than half the price of the current cheapest car on the market, a Maruti 800. Pollution analysts warn that such a drastic cut in prices could have devastating consequences…

Although environmentalists generally favour small cars because they are more fuel-efficient and produce lower emissions, they are concerned by the drive to make car ownership soar to previously unimaginable levels.

‘There is this mad rush towards lowering the prices to achieve mass affordability,’ [emphasis added] said Anumita Roychoudhury, of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. ‘If vehicle ownership increases very rapidly, we’ll have a time bomb ticking away. When you lower the price that drastically, how will you be able to meet the safety and emissions standards? There are no clear answers yet.’

On what universe is “mass affordability” of something useful a bad thing? Well, maybe one as crazy as the one of conspiracy that the Lone Gunmen inhabited.

Fortunately, most people don’t inhabit worlds like that. As the Observer further notes, “These concerns are of little interest to millions of Indians who aspire to owning a car.”

Even better, Indian columnist Vivek Sharma has had the gumption to tell none other than the vaunted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that he and critics of the Tata $2,500 car are “barking up the wrong tree and some of their arguments are elitist and discriminatory.” A few choice bits:

Last year, a columnist in a major Indian financial newspaper wondered how this country could allow a product like the Tata small car that would make our urban lives messier and all the more tedious. This is one of the biggest complaints against the Tata small car. But the question is, messier and tedious for whom? Obviously the urban rich, for the lives of the urban lower middle class and the poor cannot be made any messier! So, those who cannot afford more expensive cars must stick to their motorbikes so that the rich can continue to enjoy comfortable rides in thin traffic!

Another curious argument is that most of the potential buyers of the Tata car would have no parking space at their homes. So, it is said, they will all start parking their puny little cars by the roadside and clog traffic. A car manufacturer cannot be asked to sell to only those who have their own parking space. It is the potential buyers’ problem to find a safe parking space. If they cannot find adequate parking space, or find parking to be very expensive, they will not take out their cars very often or will abstain from buying them in the worst case.

Given our ‘highly developed civic sense’ and ‘ready willingness to obey the rules’, it is likely that many of the new small car owners would conveniently park their vehicles where they should not. But, doesn’t that happen even now with those who can afford expensive cars? It is the rich who flout traffic rules more blatantly and it is very likely that cars left at ‘no parking’ areas will be the most expensive ones because they know the traffic policeman will usually not dare to touch the ‘sahib’s gaadi’.

When that is the case, this argument smacks of blatant elitism. The less affluent cannot be denied the safety and comfort of a cheap four-wheeled vehicle, only because the existing infrastructure will come under further strain. Any move to restrict the number of cars should apply to all vehicles, irrespective of their cost. Even then, it should be ensured that the costs of such measures – like increased road taxes and parking charges – should be proportionate to the owners’ ability to pay. Anything else will be discriminatory and simply unfair.

The safety bogey
Another potential fault critics have come up with is safety. “When you lower prices that drastically, how will you be able to meet safety standards?” – Anumita Roychoudhury of the Centre for Science and Environment (CES), one of the most-quoted critics of the Tata car, is reported to have asked. Does she really believe that there are no safety standards for vehicles in India? Even if they are inadequate, are we supposed to believe that a manufacturer from the House of Tatas, would risk its reputation and compromise on safety just to cut costs?

Even if the Tata small car is deemed less safe in terms of passenger injuries in the event of a collision, we need to remember that nobody in their right senses would enter such a car in a drag race! Neither will any sensible driver try to test the car’s speed limit on our dangerous highways. Most potential buyers, ordinary middle class buyers, will drive the car to work or take their families for an outing on weekends.

Is the probability of high speed collisions on our city roads, where the average speed is in the range of 20 to 30 kmph, so high? In high-speed highway collisions, will the passengers in other small cars like the Maruti 800, Alto or even a Santro fare any better?

Furthermore, won’t the Tata small car be far safer for lower middle class families who now use motorcycles and scooters with only the rider wearing a safety helmet in equally “dangerous” traffic conditions?

Roychoudhury has also argued that the Tata car has “not much chance” of retaining its price tag when safety features like airbags and anti-lock brakes are made standard in all vehicles. It is Ratan Tata who should worry about that, not his detractors. Oh! Shouldn’t his critics be happier if the car becomes costlier and beyond the reach of its target customers!

The sad thing is, that would make them happier.