COMMENTARY: Nano: a people's car too many?

Posted: 21 January 2008

Tata's little people's car, the Nano, costs only £1,300, can seat five at a pinch and does 54 miles to the gallon. It is set to sell by the million in India and elsewhere. Here we publish a commentary on this controversial car from Micheal Renner of the Worldwatch Institute and a related plea from the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi.

Michael Renner writes:

One car gets 46 miles per gallon, features fancy accessories, and sports two engines with a combined 145 horsepower. The other car reportedly gets 54 miles per gallon, runs on a diminutive 30-horsepower engine, and is positively spartan in its interior trimmings. The first is a darling of the environmentally conscious. The latter is reviled as a climate wrecker. These two vehicles are the Toyota Prius and the newly unveiled Tata Nano, dubbed "the people's car." Is there a double standard?

Nano car
Nano car
Nano, the world's cheapest car. Credit: Tata
Advertised as the world's cheapest car, the Nano is a no-frills automobile designed by Indian conglomerate Tata to be affordable for millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of people who are newly joining the middle class in India and elsewhere in the developing world. Such mass sales might overwhelm halting efforts to ward off catastrophic climate change. As Indians (and others) join the love affair with the private automobile, many in the West are suddenly aghast at the prospect of Nano becoming a household term like Chevy or Mercedes. The German weekly Der Spiegel termed it an "eco-disaster."

Indeed, transportation has the fastest growing carbon emissions of any economic sector. Proliferating numbers of automobiles are a key reason. More than 600 million passenger cars are now on the world's roads, and each year some 67 million new ones roll out of manufacturing plants.

But amid the finger pointing, let's remember who has driven the planet to the edge of the climate abyss. People in Western countries and Japan - less than 15 per cent of the world's population - own two-thirds of all passenger and commercial motor vehicles in the world. Although they are rapidly expanding their fleets, India and China, with a third of the world's population, so far account for only about 5 per cent of vehicles. In 2005, China's ratio of motor vehicles to population was at about the level the United States had reached some 90 years earlier. India's ratio is less than half that of China.

Golf cart

Westerners not only have far more cars, but the distances they drive are also 3-4 times longer on average than those of Indians and Chinese. The United States alone - where monster SUVs roam and driving is considered a birthright - claims about 44 per cent of the world's gasoline consumption. Fuel economy has stagnated for a quarter-century as cars grew larger, heavier, and more muscular. Here in New York, a Nano might be mistaken for a golf cart.

Nano car interior
Nano car interior
Interior of the Nano - very basic. Credit: Tata
So if it's true that Asia's (and Latin America's and Africa's) teeming billions can't indulge in the same reckless habits as Westerners, then neither can Americans, Europeans, or Japanese. Delhi and Beijing know hypocrisy when they encounter it. Nonetheless, they have good reason to take action irrespective of what Western countries say or do. Residents of many Asian cities are exposed to a lethal brew of sulphur and nitrogen oxides, particulates, and toxics from motor vehicles of all stripes. Breathable air is every bit as important as climate stability.

Leaner engines and cleaner fuels are essential. The Nano may well be a cleaner option than the highly polluting motorcycles, motor rickshaws, and diesel buses (and many of the Western-designed cars) already clogging India's roads. But the mass market that Tata is hoping for will render putative gains ephemeral.

Serious rethink

All countries need to seriously rethink their transportation policies. Such an effort has to go far beyond the pursuit of alternative fuels and even beyond making cars more efficient. Denser cities and shorter distances reduce the overall need for motorized transportation and make public transit, biking, and walking more feasible. Those who will never be able to afford a car will have more options instead of being marginalized by the onslaught of private automobiles.

In a BBC World Service call-in debate, Malini Mehra, founder of the Centre for Social Markets in Kolkata, India, questioned those who regard car ownership a right. And Sunita Narain, head of India's Centre for Science and Environment, has pointed out that private motor vehicles "are providing transport only to 20 per cent of people in Delhi." She called on Tata and other manufacturers to "provide solutions for public transport."

The change needed is more than a matter of technology. It requires questioning shortsighted personal choices by consumers who buy unnecessarily large or powerful vehicles, as well as confronting the auto and oil companies that derive enormous profit from the status quo.

Indian viewpoint

According to the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, the car is not the problem, but government policy is.

The message of last week's India's 9th Auto Expo,should 'make us all sit up', it says. Personal vehicle ownership is rising in India; it will grow manifold in coming years. There will be a few million more cars - small as well as big, and many of them driven on toxic diesel - jostling for that limited space on India's limited roads. Air quality will only get worse; energy use will go up, and instead of moving ahead, people will actually grind to a stop due to congestion.

But this is a government-made disaster because the Indian government's policies are weak, says CSE, and need to be corrected. In a pre-budget letter to the Union finance minister P. Chidambaram, CSE set out a charter of demands for mobility and clean air for all.

Four demands

"We strongly believe that the current fiscal and regulatory policies do not adequately take into account the social, health and environmental costs of motorisation," says Sunita Narain, director, CSE.

"Cars do meet our aspirations, but they cannot meet our needs. Our needs must be met by public transport."

The letter lists four key demands:

Firstly, it wants the government to completely remove the 16 per cent Central excise tax on passenger buses. It also wants the finance minister to provide guidance to state governments to correct the current policies, which tax the bus more than the car.

Secondly, the government must not reduce the existing tax rates on cars and SUVs but it must also maintain the differential taxes between small and big vehicles. Small vehicles must be taxed less. Any reduction on taxes on cars will only add to the subsidy being given to cars, as against buses.

Thirdly, it wants government in the Budget 2008 to increase the excise duty on diesel cars. Currently, car manufacturers use the price differential on petrol and diesel as a convenient loophole to sell cars that run on fuel of the poor.

Fourthly, it wants the finance minister to link Central excise duties to fuel efficiency standards and provide tax breaks to vehicles that meet advanced emission norms.

Note: Delhi, like Bangalore, adds roughly 1,000 vehicles each day on its roads, and on average people lose 2.5 hours every day to reach their destination. This is bound to get worse, as roads and flyovers fail to keep pace with the growing numbers, says CSE

Michael Renner's Commentary was sourced from Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the Blue Moon Fund. Copyright Worldwatch Institute.