At Davos, Pachauri explains the Nano dilemma

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.

You never wait for more than a minute for a bus in Central London

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?


One Comment

  1. The Rise of the Car Nazis: Ratan and the Tata Wannabes.

    Ratan Tata has made an illegal Left turn in a no-car zone. The Nano is a no-no.

    Can industry-hungry West Bengal help to rethink the Nano ‘personal car’ project and instead develop into a manufacturing hub for MASS PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION? Do we need more cars or more and better public use transport — buses, subway trains, rail?

    The people of India and I am one of them, do NOT need a mis-named people’s car. We need a People’s Bus, A People’s Mass Transit, a vastly expanded People’s Railway, we need PUBLIC MASS TRANSPORTATION that is ecologically sustainable and delivers a public convenience that meets the needs of our underserved Indian URBAN AND RURAL masses and is the envy of, and a model for, the entire world. I proudly count myself among these masses, even though I teach in the US and live and work in India only about six months of the year.

    Q.Why did Ratan Tata and the Tata Group choose to put their wholly admirable “frugal engineering” expertise into a private car and not into making buses and mass transportation vehicles? A.Corporate greed and personal ambition.

    The Tata Group has decades of engineering knowhow in the heavy truck sector. Why didn’t they build on this experience and come out with buses and other mass transport innovations? Again the answer is corporate greed and selfish personal ambition. Ratan Tata has absolutely no stake in the Greater Collective Good (GCG). Tata is all about profit.

    What many Indians (especially the avidly consuming, politically apathetic and ethically indefensible middle class in India) fail to appreciate is that a fabulous city like New York where I live about six months a year is heavily invested in mass public transportation. NYC has been heavily invested in mass transit for over half a century.

    I don’t own a car either in India or the U.S. And I don’t plan to own one, certainly not the Nano. I walk. I ride the buses and trains in India and I am proud to say that I adamantly refuse to ride in a car in India.

    In New York, I do have a bicycle. Tens of thousands like me in New York ride our magnificent, er often tardy and continually underfunded subways of the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). I can get all around town and all the outer boros and to JFK airport for $2 and then I am happy to pay another $5 to get me on the public mass transportation called the AirTrain right into the airport terminals. Ordinary folks (mainly the middleclass and the aspiring middleclass) fought at public hearings and through legislative lobbying, for the funding of mass transit in preference to car-choked highways — and we got it. We didn’t get everything we wanted but there’s always a next time at a public hearing or a court testimony.

    Even our Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg rides the subway everyday to work. It’s a great feeling to get on a train that runs under New York and to know that we are contributing zero pollution to our wonderful city. That is precisely what we need in India. NOT crazy Ratan (“I have no watan”) Tata and his no-no Nano.

    Both the centre and the states must urgently invest in public mass transit which they have criminally neglected and disproportionately taxed.

    The Nano represents a vivid test case for our civil society and the need for urgent development of a Critical Environmental Studies in schools and colleges to research such complex issues. I have presented the above ideas in India during conferences on Environmental Sustainability and will not rest until such proposals gain policy implementation.

    India cannot afford to manufacture or dispose of a paper cup, let alone a personal car.
    The Gandhian post-revolutionary democratic Indian nation-state deserves a lofty vision, mission and policies that affirm the public trust. Public mass transportation that is ecologically sustainable is part of that noble public trust.

    Note: in a subsequent blog I have cut and pasted all or nearly all of Tata’s own comments (“From the Chairman’s Desk”) on the Nano.
    Let the reader perform her/his own critical analysis of whether the Nano serves the Greater Collective Good (GCG).
    Dr. Chithra KarunaKaran
    City University of New York (CUNY)


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