Indian roads are not for the faint-hearted. To drive through any of the nation’s cities in peak traffic, you must have nerves of steel, a loud horn and no shyness about using it. If you are one of the millions riding those roads on a two-wheel scooter of motorcycle, you’ll need more than just nerves. You’ll need good luck too. Injuries and fatalities in two-wheeler-related accidents in India are considerably higher than those related with cars – some ten to fifteen times more in per mile calculation.
But, in overpopulated India, statistics and safety, unfortunately, don’t mean much for the common man, especially when he has limited funds. So it is common to see a family of four, and even five, crammed onto a scooter or a motorcycle, making its way through the congested roads, as impatient commuters dangerously swerve in and out to get through the heavy traffic.
For Ratan Tata – chairman of India’s largest conglomerate, the Tata Group – however, it was a sight that got him thinking. It made him wonder if safe, affordable transportation was possible for the common man in India. He decided it was, and set out to make a car that, he promised, would cost only $2,500.
No doubt, there were many critics who had grave reservations about it, but Mr. Tata is man of his word and he has more than kept his promise. In the Auto Expo that was held in New Delhi over the weekend, his “people’s car”, as it’s being called, was unveiled amongst a lot of excitement. Fittingly named the Nano, it is the cheapest car in the world.
In Information-Technology driven, and obsessed, India, the word Nano – originating from science’s Nanotechnology – has come to signify anything that’s new, hip and cutting edge, be it a car, a gadget or even a new township
Tata, who is being likened to Henry Ford, drove up to the stage with the soundtrack of ‘2001: The Space Odyssey’ playing dramatically in the background. As he stood proud and emotional on the podium he said that even though prices of raw materials had escalated since he made his promise, he was still delivering the car at the same price, “because a promise is a promise.” And what a promise it truly is. A basic four-door, no-frills hatchback, it has a 33 bhp, 623 cc twin cylinder engine at the back of the car with a top speed of about 65 miles an hour and claims a fuel efficiency of 50 miles per gallon.
The Nano will change the lives of millions of Indians and over the past few days many have written to tell Tata that. There are, of course, contrary views as well and concerns about the fact that once millions of these cars are on the roads, the already choked-up roads are going to be impossible to drive on. Environmentalists are worried as are many citizens who drive on the crammed roads. Rajendra Pachauri, the chief UN energy scientist who heads Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that won a Nobel Peace Prize (along with former U.S. Vice-President Mr. Al Gore), said that he was having nightmares about it.
The concerns are real, but Tata claims that the Nano conforms to the emissions standards and even said at the Expo that “Pachauri need not have nightmares.” The Nano is said to be less polluting than the two-wheelers currently on Indian roads – it has passed the Euro 4 -European Emission Standards – has passed front and side crash tests with its crumple zones and intrusion resistant doors.
The Nano may well add to the congestion on the roads but you can hardly grudge the less fortunate a car that may finally be within their reach, and turn a blind eye to the bigger, more polluting cars of the rich. Of course, what India really needs is a decent public transport system so that car owners, of Nanos or others, can have an alternative that will make them leave their cars at home. Short of that, it’s only going to get worse for commuters, especially in the metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
But, public transportation woes aside, the fact of the matter is, that the Nano is an engineering marvel many doubted India could achieve. For proud Indians, it is yet another thing to celebrate. India is not only one of the few nations in the world to manufacture (and not just assemble) cars, but now it’s the country that has given the world its cheapest, most delightful car that, if Mr Tata is to be believed, and we have reason to, will be exported to many parts of the world.