Nano car. Big questions. (Part 2 of 2)


Is Ratan Tata a hero or a villain? His Tatan 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?

<BACK to Nano car. Big questions. (Part 1 of 2)

That was what Ratan presented in New Delhi when he, accompanied by electronic fireworks and the theme song of 2001: A Space Odyssey, drove what looked like an enlarged white jellybean onto the stage of the auto expo.

With the Nano, Ratan has turned the entire automobile world upside down. He has produced a car so cheap that it can be purchased by tens of millions of people, or even hundreds of millions of people, worldwide. He has provided mobility to an entire underclass, and unshackled them from the tyranny of public transport and the discomfort and danger of two-wheelers. He has, in short, done almost exactly what Henry Ford had done a century ago.

For this, he was painted a villain in the West, as a polluter of the first class, the man whose invention can render all efforts to fight global warming moot.

Looking at the Nano, Time magazine sneeringly called it an "econobox". Still it was kinder its rival Newsweek, which, in an article titled "A Billion New Tailpipes", quoted Yale environmentalist, Daniel Esty, as saying: "This car promises to be an environmental disaster of substantial proportions." The influential German weekly Der Spiegel didn’t even bother to mince its words, labelling the Nano "an environmental disaster".

In a panic, the Los Angeles Times asked: "What happens if, through a combination of its incredibly rapid economic growth and innovations like the Nano, India's car-ownership ratio hits that of the US? That would put 864 million cars on India's roads, more than 3 1/2 times the number in the US."

The New York Times, its East Coast rival, was in agreement. Condemnation of the Nano came, surprisingly, from Thomas Friedman, the NYT columnist whose book "The World Is Flat" is widely considered to be one of the influential pro-globalisation books ever written.

Friedman, which praised the Toyota Prius for its environmentally friendly design, thumbed down his nose at the Nano. This is despite the fact that the Nano actually has better fuel economy than the Prius (54 mph versus 45 mph for every 4.55 litres, though, of course, that is only one measure of the “green-ness” of a car).

The Nano, Friedman intoned, is the "cheap copy of our worst habits".

One might argue that the worst habit of the United States is its tendency to attack other countries for no apparent reason, but Friedman’s point is made. And so is that of Newsweek and others.

The point, in a nutshell, is that while the developed world can own cars, and nothing concrete is done to limit car population (on April 17 President Bush announced the US would cap emission in 2025 – i.e., no action would be taken from now for the next 17 years), the moment Ratan makes a car that the poor can afford, he becomes a bigger villain than the entire Detroit put together.

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?"

Why indeed. By creating a car that is tiny and seemingly innocuous, Ratan has thrown the gauntlet to the western world. He has challenged them to confront the issues of global warming and car ownership and to come up with a solution. So far no one has picked up the gauntlet. That says a lot about the world we live in.

The Nano Babel

By Dan-Chyi Chua

Smaller than a micro and snazzier than a pico, the word “nano” has become this generation's buzzword for “tiny”.

One way to avoid confusion is through the pronunciation. The American Ipod is a “nay'no” while the Indian Tata car, a “nah'no”. Still puzzled? Ask an American what ketchup is made from.

While some will put it down to regional linguistic differences, purists will tell you that in the case of the word “nano”, the Indians are the ones who say it right. The word “nano” originates from the Greek. It is also used in Italian, and in both languages, the word means “dwarf” and is pronounced the Indian way.

The reason Tata named his tiny car the “nano” is because that is the word for “small” in his native Gujerati. This similarity between the three languages points to an origin five millenia old. Italian, Greek and Gujerati are just three tongues that find their origins in the Proto-Indo-European language, which spread since the Bronze Age from around the Baltic region to form diverse language families including the Hellenic, which includes Gaellic and Greek; the Sanskrit, like Gujerati; and the Italic branch that gave birth to Romance languages such as Italian.

Finally after 5,000 years, we are back speaking the same language once again. Well, almost.



First Published: 
July 2008


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
You are not logged in:

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

[email protected]