IPCC Chairman and TERI chief Rajendra K. Pachauri told the BBC yesterday from the World Economic Forum at Davos, that he was not against the Tata Nano, but if people were forced to use it in the absence of a strong public transport backbone, the results could be very bad for the environment.
Dr. Pachauri’s is a feeble voice in a chorus of welcome for the Nano, not least from the media. In fact, it is a bad time for anyone talking about alternatives to personal automobiles. That includes Ken Livingstone the Mayor of election-bound London, whose extreme Left views would not find favour even with many Marxists in India. So when Dr. Pachauri cited London’s example of charging cars for congestion, and using the money to fund public transport in his BBC interview, it would have further rankled India’s automotive industry.
All of which is not to say that the Nano will be a certified bad piece of engineering. It is only the loss of efficiency of the automobile, the congestion, the climate-changing emissions, extreme weather events and the resultant all-round losses that make the situation unwinnable for the Nano and other solutions of its ilk.
In fact, BBC also interviewed the chief executive of Shell, Jeroen van der Veer on the question of energy at Davos. It is interesting that van der Veer said that the future price of fossil fuels will witness ups and downs (with a familiar impact on economies) and that there will be a greater representation in the energy mix for renewables.
This holds an important thought for a mass-populated India. It is a no-brainer that with increase in demand in both China and India for a higher automobile population, and constraints in fossil fuel supply, there will be even sharper and more frequent spikes. Political instability in oil-producing nations, which could worsen in the event of a US recession, is bound to make oil prices even more volatile. All this will put pressure on a large segment of the Indian population that does not have the capacity to weather these spikes. This is just the direct economic dimension. The climate-change implications are an altogether different issue.
Can India’s policymakers afford not to adopt policies that will cater to the large number of people who have to go about their income generation activity without being bled white for basic commuting and travel? Are high cost solutions unavoidable?
A moribund Government of India that merely issues letters to Chief Secretaries from the Ministry of Urban Development, urging that they invest more in pedestrianisation, buses, trains, trams and so on cannot hope to make progress on this agenda. Certainly, it cannot claim that the Tata Nano is the silver bullet for the country’s mobility problems. No progress can be made in this area until the Centre is ready to enact legislation requiring massive expansion of public transport in India, say with a law that requires states to achieve a net increase of carrying capacity in unit numbers annually by 50 per cent in trains, buses, trams, cycling pathways for the first three years, and then by 10 or 20 per cent, with funding coming through a variety of taxes on fuel and cars or on all goods.
This is not just the environmentally sensible thing to do, it is also something that is just and people-friendly. But will Manmohan Singh and his allies bite the bullet?