The unveiling of Tata Motors' people's car—perhaps the most highly anticipated vehicle in more than a decade worldwide--had all the frenzied atmosphere of a celebrity perp walk. A hundred or more photographers jostled for position in front of the dais where the as yet unnamed economy car was to be revealed. Usually cynical old hacks burst into applause and even whistles when chairman Ratan Tata, after implicitly comparing the company's achievement to the first flight by the Wright Brothers and the invention of the computer, revealed that the car will be called the Nano and despite all speculation to the contrary it will indeed retail for the target price of 100,000 rupees (or $2500). “A promise is a promise,” was the line that got them.
There was good reason for the excitement. The Nano has been under development for four years, during which time no pictures have leaked to the media and only a handful of details about it had been revealed. It costs less than half the amount that Maruti Suzuki—the current market leader in India—charges for its cheapest model. And, as Tata himself revealed at the press conference, the first models to roll off the company's assembly line in Singur, West Bengal, will get about 20 kilometers per liter of gasoline (50 mpg), pass the head-on crash test mandated by Indian regulators and also the offset and side impact crash tests required abroad, and meet stringent European emissions standards that have yet to be adopted in India.
Tata's emphasis on these performance features was well considered. He has repeatedly insisted that the Nano will outperform India's current emissions standards, pollute less per engine than the motorcycles and scooters it is intended to replace, and get roughly the same gas mileage as the market-leading Maruti models. But he has been beleaguered by doomsday predictions from India's leading environmentalists. The most notable among them was Nobel prize winning climatologist RK Pachauri, who said last month that he feared Tata's cheap car for the masses would prove to be an environmental nightmare. “We will emit less pollutants than the best two-wheelers in the country. I don't mean per passenger mile or anything. I mean per vehicle. So I am both amused and intrigued by why we are being banned as an environmental disaster.”
To be sure, pollution and traffic conditions in India's cities are grim. A ten-mile drive across town during the morning commute can take an hour and a half or even more, as drivers forge eight lanes out of two lane roads and scrum for position—horns blaring—like NASCAR competitors. Worse still, as Anumita Roy Chowdhury, associate director of New Delhi's Center for Science and the Environment, points out, more than half of India's cities suffer from air pollution levels that are officially classified as critical. In Delhi, for instance, which has the largest number of registered vehicles in the country, adding about a thousand new vehicles per day, but has also forced taxis, auto rickshaws and buses to shift to less polluting natural gas, respiratory diseases are 12 times more common than the national average. That's not surprising. In the city's central Connaught Place district, the density of air pollutants at peak hours ranges between 286 and 617 micrograms per cubic meter—as much as 30 times the level that the World Health Organization says is a safe target for such particles.
It is also certain that the Nano will inspire other manufacturers to develop their own cheap cars and force Maruti Suzuki, at least, to slash prices to continue to compete in the economy segment. And both developments will have the effect of rapidly increasing the number of new cars hitting the road in India over the next five years. But the assertion that Tata's Nano--a car for the masses that, it is claimed anyway, will emit fewer toxic particles than the millions of vehicles currently on the road—will drive the already terrible situation to the brink of disaster both suggests that the car manufacturer is responsible for everything from building roads to encouraging carpooling and implies that for some reason India's poor should not be allowed to drive cars so as to make life as convenient and pleasant as possible for India's rich. “Were we to succeed and sell 500,000 small cars every year, we would then, at the end of five years, constitute approximately 2.5 percent of all passenger vehicles in this country,” Tata said. “We could hardly be considered a nightmare, [as] has been raised about our small car.”
Indeed, the Nano is hardly the principal culprit. Currently, much of India requires only Euro 2 emissions standards, which are ten years out of date, the diesel fuel and gasoline sold in the nation's pumps is so dirty that even engines equipped with modern emissions technology still pollute more than the current European norms, and there are few, if any, government measures to penalize gas-guzzlers or discourage unnecessary driving. “Currently, if you look at the way our transport system is taxed,” says Chowdhury, “The tax is actually higher per person for a bus than it is for a car.”
The real danger, therefore, is not from the Nano itself but from its potential effect on policymakers, who have been somewhat schizophrenically pushing India as a global hub for the manufacturing of small cars and scrambling to improve the public transportation infrastructure to make its cities more livable. If Tata distracts India's leaders from the latter mission by convincing them that one day everybody from the shoeshine boy to the president will be driving a Nano, and India's economy will develop along the path beaten by America and Henry Ford's Model T, that will indeed be disastrous. But if all goes well, the Nano could actually have a positive environmental impact. By setting the benchmark for emissions standards higher, and still producing the car for less money than its competitors, Tata has scuttled the perception that a car has to run dirty to be cheap. And by raising the specter of cities choked by even worse gridlock, it could spur city and state governments into action on infrastructure and public transport projects like the introduction of low-cost airlines and the huge surge in air travel did for the Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai airports. In India, nothing happens until it is clear that a disaster is around the corner if it doesn't.
Tata's Nano could be that kind of disaster. A good one.