The Conspiracy to Deny the Poor Mobility – and Opportunity

Mobility is prosperity—a fact that humans have recognized since the dawn of civilization, when population centers arose next to navigable waterways. Yet this simple fact seems to evade many pundits, environmental activists—and even screenwriters.

Screenwriters? Yes. 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—which they publish in a newsletter titled, of course, The Lone Gunman.

This one episode involves the covering up—by oil companies, who else?—of a car that runs on water. At the end of the episode, the three Gunmen, after much skulking around, find the car's prototype and test it—and find that it works!

However, rather than thwart Big Oil's machinations, the Gunmen decide to keep the car's existence 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 it was done not for grubby profit, but to save the poor from themselves. Nice. 

That sanctimonious episode was fiction, but art imitated life last week in a way annoyingly reminiscent of it. On January 8, India's Tata Motors unveiled the Nano, 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.

“There is this mad rush towards lowering the prices to achieve mass affordability,” Anumita Roychoudhury of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, told Britain's Observer newspaper. [Emphasis added] “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?”

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. Thankfully, 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.” However, some green activists and pundits do seem to live in such a world—and nothing's going to keep them from telling Indians what's best for them.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reacted to the first news of the Nano's planned introduction with a hysterical call of “No, No, No, Don't Follow Us“—us being the industrialized West and the place to not follow into being access to one's own wheels.

“We have no right to tell Indians what cars to make or drive,” Friedman admits. “But we can urge them to think hard about following our model, without a real mass transit alternative in place.” And how might those alternatives come about? India, he says, “should leapfrog us, not copy us. Just as India went from no phones to 250 million cellphones—skipping costly land lines and ending up with, in many ways, a better and cheaper phone system than we have—it should try the same with mass transit.”

Friedman can urge away all he wants, but the policy he proposes has little use for moral suasion. Approvingly citing Sunita Narain, direct or New Delhi's Center for Science and Environment, he says that, “India can't ban a $2,500 car, but it can tax it like crazy [emphasis added] until it has a mass transit system that can give people another cheap mobility option.” Narain told Friedman, apparently with a straight face, “I am not fighting the small car. I am simply asking for many more buses and bus lanes.” Taxing something “like crazy” is “not fighting” it? Could even the Lone Gunmen encounter such a conspiracy against simple economic logic as this?

Hopefully people concerned about transport in India—and other developing countries where Tata hopes to eventually export the Nano—will have no truck with such views. Vivek Sharma, a columnist with the Indian business website, says plainly  that Friedman and other critics of the Tata Nano are “barking up the wrong tree and some of their arguments are elitist and discriminatory.”

“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,” says Sharma. “Any move to restrict the number of cars should apply to all vehicles, irrespective of their cost.” Regarding safety, Sharma notes that Tata has too much of a reputation to protect cut corners on safety, and that many of the Nano's potential buyers are riding scooters today, which are less safe than any enclosed car.

And, as Barun Mitra of India's Liberty Institute notes, “[A]s more Indians learn to drive, the appreciation of basic road rules and etiquettes will improve, as drivers begin to realize that the purpose of the rules are not to hinder movement, but to facilitate it.” Moreover, Mitra notes, greater mobility could help relieve congestion over the long term by allowing lower-density development, and that would encourage the building of new—and upgrading of existing—infrastructure. But that involves building, which the greens hate.

Sharma remarks, “Oh! Shouldn't his critics be happier if the car becomes costlier and beyond the reach of its target customers!” Sadly, it would. And unlike the water-powered car cover-up, the losses here would be quite real.