Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tata's Nano, India's pride

Tata has made India proud
Friday's newspaper headlines said it all. It's small, it's snazzy, it's green, it's safe, it's cheap and it's great. It's Nano. Tata Motors has finally unveiled its wonder car, which will cost, after paying vat and registration fees, a little more than Rs 1 lakh. Everybody's ecstatic over the car -- as one newspaper said, "Tiny Nano triggers mega frenzy, gets rockstar reception across India." If this frenzy were to translate into demand, Tata Motors would have a formidable winner in its stable.
Mr Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Motors, when asked what inspired him to come up with India's version of the German Beatle, said it was "the image of a lower middle-class man on a scooter, the elder kid standing in front of the driver-father and the wife riding pillion with a baby on her lap", that kept playing on his mind. "Why can't this family own a car?" he would ask himself. That's how Nano was conceived, and given a shape and form by a young engineer, Mr Girish Wagh. Nano is a unique combination of enterprise and cutting edge technological innovation; in a sense, it symbolises the emergence of 'Force India'.
Yet, there are many who are mightily unhappy with the arrival of Nano. Some of them have very valid reasons, primarily that our roads, which can barely cope with traffic at present, will get further crowded, as the conceived-in-India "people's car" joins its flashier, expensive cousins produced by multinational corporations. There is merit in this argument. But there is a solution to the problem: Government should start using the taxes we pay for building infrastructure, namely roads, that we desperately need, Nano or no Nano. This would also generate badly needed jobs and create more than 100 days of dubious employment. True, this is easier said than done; infrastructure is not high on the priority list of either the Centre or State Governments. We need not take their protestations to the contrary seriously.
What rankles, however, is the rant of jholawallahs who suffer from what some of us who worked in the PMO, when Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister, would refer to as 'Instant Rejection Syndrome'. This disease is noticeably prevalent among a certain breed of bureaucrats and manifests itself in their instantly rejecting every idea/suggestion/proposal/recommendation as soon as it is mentioned to them, either verbally or on file.
For example, there was a proposal to launch, in cooperation with WHO and a Mumbai-based NGO, a pilot project for immunising children against hepatitis. A meeting was convened to discuss the proposal. Even before the NGO representative could switch on his laptop for a power-point presentation, senior bureaucrats rubbished the proposal and came up with the most astonishing reasons why it did not merit further discussion. I recall one of them pompously declaring, "We haven't eradicated malaria, a poor man's disease, as yet. There's no need to bother about a rich man's disease." The bureaucrat, who has since been promoted as Additional Secretary, was (and remains) a twice-born fool and, like many of her colleagues, suffers from acute 'Instant Rejection Syndrome'.
Those upset by Nano's appearance because it will add to non-biodegradable junk, increase our fuel consumption, leave an indelible carbon footprint, make driving unsafe and heighten aspiration levels, suffer from the same disease. India needs better public transport facilities, they argue. Of course it does. Had there been a half-decent public transport system connecting Noida and Delhi, I would have promptly sold my car. But there isn't. And since those who passionately promote the case for public transport as it exists -- ramshackle crowded buses as bad as Hitler's cattle cars which ferried Jews to concentration camps -- zip around in fancy cars, there's no reason why I must suffer the stench of sweat and puke while travelling to work and returning home.
Carping critics, lashing out at Nano even before we got to see the car or learn about its features, scoffed at the possibility of Tata Motors coming up with a cutting edge technological innovation that would meet global emission and safety standards. One of them, writing in this newspaper last week, was snootily dismissive: "Stripping down a product to its bare basics is no technology advancement." If Nano does not showcase technology advancement, then what does? Poison-spewing two-wheelers? Autorickshaws that run on petrol spiked with kerosene, as they do in most parts of the country?
It's amazing how these critics of Nano aren't bothered about the proliferation of two-wheelers and autorickshaws that are a terror on most roads and highways. It's equally surprising that they aren't hostile to fuel-guzzling SUVs which hog road space. 'Hamara Bajaj' is good, but 'Sabka Tata' is bad. Road accidents on account of two-wheeler drivers and autorickshaws who merrily violate traffic rules do not agitate them, but they are worried sick that Nano isn't safe enough. Never mind that the car has passed the front crash test and side safety test. And, although it will be less polluting than a two-wheeler, we are told that our environment is threatened by the advent of Nano!
When logic takes a back seat and glib argument is no more than assertion of absurdity, it makes little sense to contest claims that are obviously based on flawed, though not necessarily innocent, presumptions. But it's tempting to respond to some of the points that have been raised. Take, for instance, the issue of generating non-biodegradable junk. If this is a real fear, then we should immediately ensure that masses don't have access to computers to ward off the accumulation of e-junk. And mobile phones should be prohibited because their lithium batteries are lethal for our good Earth. Flat screen LCD television sets, too, should be banned. While we are at it, could we please abolish the production of polythene bags and tetrapacks? And could someone please calculate how many throwaway plastic pens are thrown into trashcans around the world every day? How many tonnes of thermocol are used by way of disposable plates and tumblers, not to mention packing material? How many mountains would be blown up to produce cement required for providing pucca shelter to our billion plus people?
It's nice to fantasise over a cup of mocha at a café and think of new ways to paint scary doomsday scenarios that can be warded off by simply saying no to Nano. But it's tough to come up with answers that are credible and solutions that are doable. It's tougher for our jholawallahs to take pride in the emergence of 'Force India'. After all, the butter on their bread is not Amul.

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