Small Car, Giant Leap

image Ratan Tata really pulled it off. Half a decade back, he had said that he wanted to give India a small car that would be within reach of the millions of Indians who have to make do with two-wheelers, and last week in the Auto Expo, he delivered on his promise. And in what style — the whole world sits up an takes notice! The media’s been abuzz with the grand success that Tata has pulled off, to the dismay of all nay-sayers who believed that the car who found a thousand and one ways to make fun of the whole concept.

Even after the car came out, people have been debating why we need to clog our roads further, how RK Pachauri’s heart would miss a beat, and Sunita Narain would get a shiver down her spine, and Chidambaram due to the oil import bill. While I agree that such a cheap car is such a disruptive thing that the whole way we think about roads, infrastructure, and gas imports needs a rehash. (This really came out of a discussion on the Blogaloreans mailing list:) I would say that in the midst of all the praise and criticism, we miss a few important points.

Firstly, the car is not made just for the cities. The whole problem of parking and traffic vanishes as soon as you move outside the city’s center. The upshot for the rest of the country is far too high to just write off the car. Personally to me, preventing less privileged people from having the luxury of cars when the more affluent income groups easily swift around is a rather elitist point of view. To quote form WorldChanging:

Which leads us to the inescapable fact that a Tata Nano in Chennai is, from the biosphere’s perspective, similar to a Toyota Corolla in Vancouver.

Even within the cities, the traffic argument fails to pass muster when you consider that traffic and other problems would occur anyway — Nano or no nano — and all the new car has done is to accelerate the process. We would have to come up with more innovative means of handling the growing traffic on our roads anyway (taxing vehicles in the Central Business District like in London is one idea) and improve the mass transport system (like in Kolkata and Delhi). The government and the Municipal Corporations need to be more proactive both in legislation and regulation.

I am personally of the view that a car should be used as a means of last mile connectivity and local transport, and I like the concept of driving to the nearest Metro station, park your car there and go to work using the Metro. IMHO, this is the model that can scale in the long run. Obviously, another important use of a car is the drive through the highway, where the safety of a car is far more reassuring than a bike or a scooter.

Autos and cabs would be another thing that would benefit greatly from this development, and if we think about what causes the most madness on the roads (autorickshaws, bikes and the like) we would be better having single-sized four wheel vehicles, which have no option but to stick to the lane discipline.

image There are other fallouts as well, the chest thumping we can now do in a major manufacturing conference is only one of these. The world is sitting up and taking notice of India’s design and engineering prowess, and I am sure the outsourcing companies have already started giving higher revenue projections. The Tata car has almost become a barometer in some circles, and its making its competitors re-think their strategy. It’s already got them new enemies — Bajaj was so worried that he announced his own car! And the ramifications are not limited to the automobile segment alone! The new car revolution might just take the country by a storm just like the mobile revolution, and change our fundamental assumptions about a host of things.

All said and done, to me the biggest advantage of this new development is that Indians will have another thing to boast about — when they promised and delivered. It will add a new spring to their step, and inshallah, help our country forward over the coming years.

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India and Development

P. Sainath, the Magsasay award winning journalist and writer of Everybody Loves a Good Drought wrote an excellent article in the Hindu today (link) about India’s standing in the Human Development Index of UNDP. India apparently stands among the bottom 50% lower than countries like Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cuba and El Salvador, countries that have been devastated by civil strife and war. In fact, if you just consider India’s adivasis and dalits as a separate nation, they are in the lowest 25. He says,

Note that some of these nations rank up to 30 slots above us. Others fall within 30 nations below us. Not one of them has had our nine per cent growth. Few of them have been touted an emerging economic superpower. Nor even as a software superpower. Not even as a blossoming nuclear power. Together, they probably do not have as many billionaires as India does. In short, even nations much poorer than us in Asia, Africa and Latin America have done a lot better than we have.

India rose in the dollar billionaire rankings, though. From rank 8 in 2006 to number 4 in the Forbes list this year, but we slipped from 126 to 128 in human development. In the billionaire stakes, we are ahead of most of the planet and might even close in on two of the three nations ahead of us (Germany and Russia). It will, of course, be some time before we erase the national humiliation of lagging behind the top dog in that race, the United States. (Which, by the way, dropped from 8 to 12 in the HDI rankings this year.)

In fact, he points out that most statisticians had been using stale data for measuring Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). If you re-calculate based on the new 2006 data, India’s GDP (in PPP terms) reduces from $3.8 trillion to $2.34 trilliion (and the GDP at nominal exchange rate is $800 million billion, still less than a trillion), and the per-capita GDP falls from $3 779 to $ 2 341. He warns that we might soon be in for a surprise when agencies start using the new figures:

It is not clear yet how agencies other than the Bank, like the UNDP for instance, were working with PPP. Were they using updated measures or the old data? If the latter (which seems the case), and given India’s entry in the Bank survey is recent, even our awful HDI performance could get worse. The captain has switched on the seat belt sign. Buckle up: we could be landing soon on the updated numbers.

Aside: There is a new innovative way to crack CAT. This bloke added me on Windows Live Spaces (have you heard of it?) with the following message:

dear
friend
add me

i m perporsition on cat 08
so plzzzzzzzzzz.
help me
friend

so add me

I still am at my wits end how my friendship will help somebody crack CAT. I think I should start enriching tuitions for CAT :P

[BTW, is he preparing for CAT, or is he proposing to a CAT?]

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