Thursday, January 10, 2008

There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom

When Richard Feynman uttered these words in 1959, little did he know that 58 years later, an Indian Industrialist would make a very serious attempt to prove him right (in a context he would never have imagined). Richard Feynman's famous words are considered by many to be origin of the modern obsession with the science Nano-technology. And fittingly, the "one-lakh" car is called "Tata Nano" - possibly reflecting on the fact that there's plenty of room at the bottom of the economic pyramid to sell a car to the Indian masses. [In reality, his target would seem to be the middle of the pyramid. The "Micro" might have been a better name - but nit-picking will not get us anywhere.].

The Tata Nano is slated to deliver a staggering 24kmpl - almost 50% more than my Toyota Yaris, the most efficient non-Hybrid in the USA. The specifications show it costs a lot less originally and minimizes the monthly expenditures due to fueling. Less CO2 in the atmosphere than its nearest competitors.

Now, let me address the issues raised by those wet blankets: GreenPeace and Sunita Narain . Sunita Narain (the Anti-Coke/Pepsi Campaigner who has accused the said corporations of saturating their beverages with pesticides) suggested that the government "Tax the vehicle like crazy" - for these vehicles will push the Indian urban air quality further into the abyss. Greenpeace held a protest outside the Delhi motor show claiming that the vehicles would add to the CO2 emissions hastening Armageddon. And everybody I met in India (well, every upper-middle class / rich person) did voice serious concerns about the wisdom of inflicting Mumbai/Bangalore/Hyderabad's static roads with many more cheap vehicles.

Very serious concerns; all equally pertinent.

I would like to split the concerns into two categories: concerns that can be addressed by market forces and the democratic forces, and those that cannot be addressed by the same.

Air Quality and Infrastructural Issues:

Urban India is a nightmare. Polluted like hell. And adding more vehicles to the urban mess would seem to make the matter worse. These concerns are extremely legitimate. And so are the concerns of an infrastructural break-down. But these concerns are universal: they affect everyone. By "taxing the small car to hell", one focuses on the most insignificant of the sinners: a vehicle that gives 24 kmpl (against the current industry average of 14kmpl); the smallest motor-car on the road (two or three of which can fit inside the average SUV) - a vehicle which conforms with the stringent Euro IV norms (as opposed to the scooters on the road which are predominantly two-stroke disasters).

The claim that these little vehicles will expose infrastructural deficiencies is quite obvious. But "taxing them to hell" is sheer economic bigotry. All vehicles on the road are responsible for this mess: the smaller cars less so than the large ones. Perhaps an infrastructure and pollution tolls could be levied in urban areas: creating a dis-incentive from alone-travel.

Another positive that one over-looks is that the impending infrastructure crisis will make infra-structuring an economic and political priority hastening an improvement. More politicians will be promising efficient mass transit; more Corporations will fund politicians who focus on issues like mass transit. Humans are, after all, at their best in a crisis, as Dr. Manmohan Singh showed in 1991.

Global Warming Issues

Political forces in the west have failed miserably in making potent anti-global warming legislation. It is blatantly unrealistic (and foolish) to expect India be a trailblazer and make such legislation - especially when it does contribute just a minute little bit to global warming.

But still, in this day and age, the reality of global warming cannot be ignored - even in India. There's two ways to tackle the global warming issue:

1. Don't develop. Stay poor forever. Greenpeace agrees.
2. Develop. Do so in a sustainable way. Why should only the western man have a car? Why can't the average Indian have a car?

In my mind, it is incredibly foolish to protest the launch of the one of world's least polluting mass-vehicles. What is green-peace doing when they sell Hummers in Texas? It is sheer economic bigotry on GreenPeace's part to protest the launch of the Nano - not to mention foolishness.

If the time comes when India really has to do something about global warming (and looking at India's per capita emissions, it does not look like it is going to happen for a long, long time) - then everyone should foot the bill. The best way to take care of it eventually is to impose a carbon tax - which will create an incentive for owning a vehicle with higher mileage like the Nano - rather than, say, a Hummer.

Though this shows that the Indian corporate houses are finding making the lives of the poorest of the poor much better a profitable proposition, this vehicle will still not be able to touch the lives of around half-a-billion Indians. One hopes that future innovations will cater to those lower down the pyramid. But it is hard to be optimistic looking at the infinite ocean of urban poverty and misery in India.


Radha said...

Nice post!!!

Gaurav said...

Hi Akhilesh
Nice post..
The world has appreciated Smart ( a merc car;its now open for booking for 99 bucksin US)...I am confident that Nano will do better.

Another point ,Dont compare US with any thing.Each American(It includes me and you too) generate 20 ton of CO2 compared to 1 ton genertaed by an urban Indian even at 9-10 % annual growth.Most of the nations (read EU, Asian countries) have declared CO2 as a pollutant except EPA in US.I believe they are busy in signing another marketing deal with Simpsons to feature in next movie.
We are doing our best to save
the earth.
will catch you later as I have to add few 100 kg of CO2 ( i have to catch a flight)