India’s ‘Model T’

The ownership of an automobile in the United States has become nothing short of a divine birthright. It’s a universally accepted fact: Americans love their cars and would sooner sacrifice their firstborn than relinquish their entitlement to the family sedan. And naturally, many have lambasted for years the environmental destruction brought upon by this auto-centric culture. Yet as the U.S. continues to look for a balance between going green and the American dream, India has found its place amidst the controversy with its new initiative, the Tata Corporation’s Nano, also known as the “world’s cheapest car.” Rather than criticize the environmental impact of this car, people around the world should praise these Indian innovators for their contribution to a developing economy.

The subcompact vehicle introduced last month costs $2,500 and Tata’s self-proclaimed goal is to make automotive transport accessible to every Indian family, calling it “The People’s Car.” Proponents laud the Nano as a giant egalitarian step for India that will help to break down class barriers and bring transport to the masses. Such praise has been drowned out, however, by critics who claim that the car will mark the beginning of the environmental apocalypse.

This argument is ridiculous considering that the United States overwhelmingly dominates global vehicle production and accounts for more than 20 percent of global gas consumption, although America accounts for only 4.6 percent of global population. It’s laughable that India should be criticized for attempting to enter the auto era as America’s love affair with cars enters its second century. The double standard of Western environmentalists smacks of a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude toward the Indian innovators. Not only should India’s government more actively facilitate such accessible transport, but also the rest of the world should applaud Tata’s step in a positive direction.

Economics professor Lawrence H. Summers has said that current levels of gross domestic product per capita in India—essentially, standards of living—are roughly equivalent to those in America pre-Civil War. As such, the closest automobile comparison to the Nano would be the Ford Model T. The Model T first rolled off the assembly line in 1908, its production reaching 15 million within 20 years. That is three times the rate at which Tata plans to introduce its no-frills vehicle. Furthermore, Model T fuel consumption averaged 15 miles per gallon—better than a Hummer—while the Nano can boast 50 miles per gallon. And when it comes to the bottom line, there’s no contest: the ‘affordable’ Model T ran the typical turn-of-the-century buyer under $20,000 in 2007 dollars, almost 10 times as much as the Nano costs.

This begs the question: if the Nano was being released in the U.S., would it be considered the same hazard to the environment? The champions of sustainability salivate at the thought of a Toyota Prius roaming the interstate highways, and yet the Nano has been dubbed an “eco-disaster.” Nobel Laureate and chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Rajendra Pachauri goes so far as to say that the new Nano “is giving me nightmares,” and worries about the effects upon traffic and confusion on India’s roadways.

What Pachauri should be worried about is the improvement of infrastructure and bringing smarter technology to India’s masses, rather than simply avoiding the problem by posturing against the Nano. In a country with such a rapidly growing middle class, on the verge of becoming the world’s largest nation, the Nano is an exceptionally smart innovation. It is compact, it is safe, it is cheap, and above all it is more fuel efficient and produces fewer emissions than the vast majority of cars you’ll find on the Mass Pike or any other American expressway. In short, the development of India’s economy is more important right now than a relatively small environmental threat like the Nano. Tata has reached its goal in terms of supplying accessible and emissions-compliant transportation; the Indian government should now step up to the plate as well to implement strategies to increase the viability of accessible transport.

It is true that many Americans consider themselves incapable of living without the cherished automobile, and correspondingly, traffic and pollution in the U.S. has become a big problem. This, however, does not mean the same thing will happen in India as a result of cars like the Nano. Transportation regulation standards have traditionally lagged in India, which is something that should be a governmental, not entrepreneurial, concern. India deserves the right to be able to responsibly grow its automotive culture and learn from the western world’s mistakes. While the goal of improved mass transit and other alternatives should be actively pursued, it is not India’s sole responsibility to do so at the expense of convenient, low-cost, environmentally compliant transportation.

Tata has raised the bar. Compared to the more common forms of transport such as crowded buses and packed motorbikes, the Nano is like a dream come true to the average Indian traveler. Furthermore, this car is emissions-compliant and poses a small environmental threat, unlike the sport utility vehicles driven by soccer moms on Massachusetts Avenue. As such, it’s decidedly hypocritical and perhaps even ethnocentric for western environmental activists to lecture Indians against driving cars.

James A. McFadden ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Mather House.