Is Tata Nano really an affordable people’s car?

Tata’s Nano has understandably captured the imagination of the international community as the first car offering that goes beyond a concept, at about 2,000 dollars.

It is a tantalising product, one that promises to not merely achieve new highs in mass production of the automobile, but to make it affordable. As we have noted in the past, it is an oxymoron to call a car affordable. The very idea of the personal automobile is that it represents secession, not integration. It is quite simply an object of luxury, in terms of ownership and use. The person who rides in a car is ensconced, shielded from the troubles of mobility associated with other “open” and “public” forms of transport. No wonder, Mr. Ratan Tata was quoted by the media as stating that it will hopefully usher in a new way of travel.

A dream-turned-true? The Nano

A dream-come-true? The Nano

We must disagree with any proposition that insists that everyone can now drive a car. That is an absurdity, because if everyone drives a Nano, no one will be able to move – at least in cities and that too in peak timings (this was my piece on this topic in The Hindu). The existing rudimentary urban engineering that we have precludes any such possibility of speedy travel, whatever the mode, and even with the best engineered roads, it will be impossible when there are a few hundred thousand nanos competing for space at every corner.

No more standing in queues with my own Nano...Or so you imagine.

No more standing in queues with my own Nano...Or so you imagine. (Photo: N. Raghuraman)

My concern goes a little beyond the prospects for mobility. I think it is also an illusion to believe that the Nano will actually be a commuting alternative to someone who has a two-wheeler. Although at first glance, the price of the Nano at Rs. one hundred thousand plus is within one’s grasp, it is too simplistic to imagine that a car and a two-wheeler have the same ownership paths. It takes a lot of space to keep a car, for one. The periodic servicing requirements are different, for another. Spares for a broken lamp or a dented side are bound to be far higher than fixing similar problems in a two-wheeler. It is also questionable whether Tata has the infrastructure in place to service thousands of Nanos in the Tier II cities, with even bare minimum efficiency levels.

It is taboo for our automotive media to really talk about the quality of automobiles, because the massive amounts of advertising (consider the full pages already in the papers from Tata for the Nano) prohibit frank discussion. It is too much to expect, therefore, that the auto glossies will take apart a Nano and talk about the quality of its parts. Or, simply poll owners of Tata vehicles and ask them whether they are happy with the quality of, say, the Indica or the Sierra and service facilities.

With all these pessimistic forebodings, the Tata Nano still seems like an idea whose time has come. A socialistic offering that promises the “freedom” to the individual, to at least wait in traffic jams listening to inane FM radio discussions, and when patience runs out, to shout at others blocking one’s path.

Sadly, our public transport initiatives are pitched either for those who have no choice (users who must put up with leaky, broken and uncomfortable buses) or the car-deprived middle class (who reluctantly cough up big fares for Volvo services). The lack of regulation of feeder transport like autorickshaws (which are owned and operated by individuals who are often beneficiaries of patronage from politicians, or by undemocratic, short-sighted trade unions) is another factor that makes options like the Nano attractive.

As the festivities continue, there are some discordant voices too. This piece in the Times of UK says the “green” claims of the Nano don’t wash with environmentalists.

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