Can Tata’s Nano win big ?

Tata’s people’s car, the Nano, has generated the kind of excitement seen in the past only when the original people’s car concept was outlined by Sanjay Gandhi, and much later, delivered by Maruti-Suzuki.

If looks can win, the Tata Nano is certainly a design triumph. For a jaded country, one that grew used to the profile of two or three cars before the advent of full blown motorisation, the “low cost” car in the publicity pictures put up by Tata Motors are a sight for sore eyes. After all, this is the country of automotive clones such as Ambassadors, Fiats (then Premier Padminis), Standard Pennants and Heralds, that chugged on for decades under Hindustan Motors and Fiat, later Premier Auto, not to mention the arthritic Standard Motors down South.

Here are some views of the new Tata offering standard model which is the good news (the bad news can come later):

Picture Courtesy Tata Motors

Picture courtesy Tata Motors

Picture courtesy Tata Motors

 Here is the so-called luxury version which is not part of the mainstream discussion. It reportedly features air-conditioning and some bells and whistles.

Picture courtesy Tata Motors

Picture Courtesy Tata Motors

It is not often that one comes across such a focus on design, in a product for the masses. One look at our public facilities designed by the Government, or at its behest, starting with buses and trains, and the point becomes clear.

As I have had occasion to point out earlier, there are many unanswered questions about the idea of a people’s car for the majority of middle class families who can make a down payment of about Rs.20,000 and pay a mortgage on a car for a few years.

The point about social disruption because of the fundamental concept of such a car has been discussed before. It is seemingly progressive that a car can replace the millions of two wheelers that many families depend upon for basic mobility, carrying the entire family on a set of two wheels. But it is a no-brainer that two wheels occupy less space, while they may not be optimal for family transport. Hence, residential buildings hosting 20 or 30 two-wheelers cannot accommodate as many people’s cars.

Second, as with historical European cities, the roads in India’s cities and towns were not built with the idea of the automobile, much less the personal car. Hence, as motorisation progresses, aided by cheaper cars from Tata, Renault-Nissan, Suzuki and probably others, there will be massive disruption of existing mobility. The call for “road widening” has already grown shrill in the metros, which is shorthand for removal of walking spaces and spreading the macadam from end-to-end. (There was even a justification of the practice by M.K.Stalin, then Mayor of Chennai and now Rural Development Minister of the State of Tamil Nadu in India. Read that report in The Hindu here).

This is a phenomenon that must be fought tooth and nail, because it is a false solution, and a measure that affects the rights of many car-less people, and those who are quite simply ethically motivated to avoid car use. It also has serious implications for safety on the roads.

Sadly, even that usurpation of pedestrians’ space is not going to solve the problem. The marginal efficiency of the car is progressively going to decline in the near future; emission concerns in their totality, linked to scientific concerns on climate change will further subtract from the value of the automobile as we know it today.

It is not difficult to imagine, under such circumstances, that Governments will move to the next stage of the process, which is to place curbs on automobile use. Even if political expediency prevents the government from directly taxing cars, they will inevitably introduce taxes on car use. Motor Vehicle taxes are one option. Sophisticated congestion charging schemes are another, although given the level of civic and technological intelligence among politicians, bureaucrats and planners in the Indian environment, that is more a long-term possibility than an immediate one.

An urban parking facility sector is also likely to mature in the environment of mass produced autos. So is an intermediate taxi sector, currently built around Tata’s Indica car. It would be in the interest of passengers without car ownership to create a strong taxi car framework in the metros, with sound laws and enforcement. The motivation to own a car will then be secondary to the convenience of being able to hire one at will, at sane fares (unlike the current anarchic autorickshaw operations in cities such as Chennai).

Lastly, it may dampen the spirit, but it remains a moot point whether a people’s car, even one involving low maintenance, with huge numbers can be serviced without extensive infrastructure. The existing facilities are patchy and in the case of Tata Motors, below par as reflected in the ratings of customer satisfaction. That means a lot more work to shore up quality — will that be cheap too?

The tailpiece should perhaps touch on the state of the Transport bureaucracy, which has been deliberately kept small to increase the pressure on vehicle owners. There are not as many RTOs, vehicle inspectors and field staff in the department as an explosion in vehicular population demands. So the question to be asked is, what will the quantum of bribes be for the RTOs, to register the people’s car ? At present, there is a cosy relationship between dealers and RTOs, with the bribes collected up-front from the customer at the showroom and paid discreetly to the transport departments. Surely, the bribe must also be scaled down for the people’s car to match its price?



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