People's car highlights India's transport dilemma

Posted: 8 February 2008

Author: Sunita Narain

The unveiling of India's £1,300 car, the Nano, to be built by the giant Tata company, has set off much controversy over the environmental consequences of mass car ownership in the populous cities of India and other developing countries. Here Sunita Narain puts the case for a new approach which would see cities built in which mobility does not mean cars.

Last fortnight, when the world's richest Indian Lakshmi Mittal visited Kolkata (Calcutta), the city of his youth, he was thrilled to see change. Mittal told the media that the biggest difference he saw was the many flyovers dotting the city skyline and "disciplined traffic". This is great progress, he told journalists, who promptly reported that the tycoon had given the city's road and traffic management a big thumbs up. I was also in Kolkata that day. But all I could see was lines and lines of traffic, belching black smoke, honking madly. It seemed we were in the same city but on different planets.

Nano car
Nano car
Nano, the world's cheapest car. Credit: Tata
This incident best exemplifies the debate on the Nano, the Rs 1 lakh (£1,300) car launched by the Tatas. The Nano, like the Kolkata flyover, is an idea of progress that has captured public imagination. There is no doubt that any car that is small is better than a big car in terms of fuel economy and emissions. There is also no doubt that affordable cars are better than expensive ones. But the question is in what direction is Nano leading us. The issue is not small, cheap cars or big, expensive cars, but all cars. The issue is whether it is helping mobility and at what price.

Big subsidy

Let's take the 'affordability' question first. The fact is that cars-small or big- are heavily subsidized. The problem is that when economists (including those who run the government) fret and fume about mounting subsidy bills, they think of farmers-fertilizer, electricity and food-not our cars. But subsidy is what they unquestionably get.

The subsidy begins with the manufacture of cars. When we read about the Singur farmers' struggle to stop government from acquiring their land for the Tata car factory we don't join the dots. We don't see this as the first big subsidy to motorization. The fact is, in Singur the manufacturer got cheap land, interest-free capital and perhaps other concessions - the Left Front government in West Bengal never made public full details of its attractive package. This brought down the cost of production and allowed the manufacturer to price the Nano at Rs 1 lakh.

But this is not only about Tata or Singur. The fact is that to compete, every manufacturer needs the same, if not better, package of benefits. The fact also is that every state government is competing to offer sweeter deals. We know that in the now contested special economic zones of Goa, the government had agreed to give industry all this and 15 years of electricity free of cost. We also know if West Bengal did not bend to please, Uttarakhand was waiting to entice the Tatas. In other words, we are certainly not paying the cost of manufacture of our cars, forget the cost of running or parking them.

The car owner (and I am one as well) pays a one-time road tax, which is between 0.5-5 per cent of the cost of the vehicle in most states. The bus pays an annual road tax and it also pays a passenger tax based on the number of people it carries - call it a penalty for efficiency as it moves more people, takes less road space and so emits less and consumes less fuel per passenger.

Congestion costs

But this is only one part of the subsidies to car owners-there is also the cost of regulating traffic; of installing traffic signals; the cost of building flyovers, overbridges and subways; the cost of pollution control measures; the cost of pollution to our health. Since cars take up over 75 per cent of the road space, even though they move less than 20 per cent of the people, it is obvious whom this expenditure benefits the most.

Traffic in Mumbai
Traffic in Mumbai
Traffic dodges a cow in Mumbai, India. Photo © Martin Roemers/Panos Pictures
Add to this the cost of congestion. In Delhi, the average driving speed during peak hours has come down - from slightly less than 30 km/hr in 1997 to just 10 km/hr in 2006. But be clear, this is not for lack of infrastructure growth, which the car lobby will complain about. In the same period, Delhi expanded its road network by 20 per cent, so that now an astounding 20 per cent of the city is under roads. But in this period cars grew at over 130 per cent. Count the growing jams as this city (like many others) adds more than 1,000 vehicles each day on its roads. Think also of changes in traffic composition - away from two-wheelers to cars - and which occupies more road space. Think of this trajectory of progress.

The subsidy bill does not end here. There is also the cost of parking, which we refuse to pay any or full cost for, and which the government refuses to impose.

Crawling buses

But we forget or do not see that in our cities the largest number of people - in Delhi over 80 per cent - take the bus or cycle or walk to work or shop. The bus has not been replaced by the car, it has only been marginalized. In simple terms, this means that buses have no space to move - in all cities they crawl, commuters cannot reach anywhere in time, and accidents keep getting worse as space constraints grow.

The question is should we discount the price of motorization so that some (and maybe a few more) can drive a car or a two-wheeler? Or should we pay the real cost of our commute so that the government can invest in mobility for all? The fact is that the government cannot afford to subsidise cars for all. Nor can it afford to invest in both cars and buses.

Ultimately, it is not about economics. It is about politics and the imagination needed to build cities in which mobility does not mean cars. Flyovers can be built, but only if we know where they will lead.

Sunita Narain is Diector of the Centre for Science and Environment, based in New Delhi. This article is reproduced from an editorial in the organisation's magazine, Down to Earth.

State of India's Environment cover
State of India's Environment cover
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