The social ideology of the motor car, an essay attributed to Andre Gorz, says that it can work only as a luxury. It is akin to owning a part of the beach. We may all want to own a little of it, but if we all could, then each would have so little that it would be practically useless. The same logic holds good for cars. If all of us had one and decided to use it, none of us can move because there is insufficient space.
As one of India’s better known brands, the Tatas apparently want to disprove that logic. They appear to be first in the race to come up with a one lakh rupee car, which will, as its proponents say, achieve socialistic ownership of what has always been viewed as a luxury. Indeed, in some remote parts of Tamil Nadu, it is referred to as “pleasure” and not car.
But why is the automobile industry in such deep love with India (and China)? It is not difficult to see that the heyday of the car as the means to individual escape is over. The screws are turning fast in the advanced markets for low-efficiency, carbon-spewing vehicles just as the growth rate for car sales has turned flaccid due to Energy Dysfunction.
What better place to peddle the fading mystique of cars than in the populous, newly prosperous markets such as ‘Bharat’?
But Dr. Rajendra K Pachauri, who received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has tried to sober down the euphoria. He must be commended for bluntly describing the one lakh rupee car as a threat to the environment. It is likely that his view will be dismissed by the powerful lobbies associated with cars, fossil fuels and road builders. The most likely defence is going to be philosophical: it brings mobility to the masses; some may also say that it complies with Euro IV norms, and so why stand in the way?
That kind of logic is at the foundation of comments by Dr. R.A.Mashelkar, the noted CSIR scientist who has consented to formally associate himself with the Tata project.
The one lakh rupee or even Rs.1.5 lakh rupee car bodes ill for social peace. It is bound to affect investments in public transport and improvements to service, as cross subsidy within bus and train services through differentiated offerings will be less viable — there will be less of the paying middle class wanting to take public transport. The clamour for road-building will reach a peak, which is good news for construction companies, but not for the environment. The toll of accidents will rise, and more Indians will be dead or injured and their families left to fend for themselves. Apartment complexes, which lack parking spaces for the majority of residents, will come under greater pressure as people quarrel over space.
There is only one way to handle the emerging mess. Do sell a car for one lakh because that is now a fait accompli. But make it prohibitively expensive to use it. Do a Ken Livingstone and charge a flat fee every time the car is used inside cities (New York is thinking of doing the same thing). That money should go ONLY to fund buses and trains (such as Chennai’s MRTS), modern trams (not the kind running in Kolkata), pedestrian and cycling facilities. Keep building such green infrastructure using congestion charging money. That is the only equitable and socialistic way to offer mobility choices.