Run for the hills! The Poor are coming! Arrgh! Run! Run for your lives! Noooooo!
So this is what the end of the world looks like. Tata Motors unveiled their long-in-the-works project, nicknamed the People’s Car, to what Reuter’s calls a “Pop star welcome“. That pop star was obviously neither Bono nor Madonna (Mumbai loves her everybody!) but rather…er, I don’t know. Who’s the most hated pop star in the world? Avril Lavigne? Whoever it is, that’s who Tata Motors is.
When Tata security personnel weren’t trying to save the new Nano from a fate worse than death (“Please don’t scratch the paint!”), they were probably putting up barricades against Greenpeace (“Cut CO2 emissions”) and NGOs (“Subsidised by farmers’ blood’). I would like to pause here and inform Greenpeace that their slogan writers are obviously crap and they need to get in touch with some NGOs pronto.
Debate on the interweb, as evidenced by this discussion on a fairly innocuous NYT blog post, rages from the prosaic (“Good luck finding a square inch to drive it on”) to the racist (“Dumb Indian choo-choo car”) to the patriotic (“I now feel validated as an Indian because an Indian company proved it can make cheaper stuff than the Chinese”) to charges of copycatism (“Apple has the sole right to the word ‘Nano’ because nanotechnology means nothing without the iPod Nano”) to the environmentally conscious (“We shall all DIE of pollution”).
[Please note all quotes in the above paragraph were paraphrased by me because the original comments sucked on the same level as Greenpeace’s pitiful attempts at sloganeering. In other words, don’t be surprised if you go over to the NYT and find the commentators sort of boring and repetitive.]
Anyhoo, apart from the Singur controversy, the main thrust of the arguments are as follows:
PRO – It’s a marvel of engineering! The world will never be the same again! Tata rocks! The car has been reinvented again! And also, Jesus, Vishnu, Moses, Mohammad and the Buddha called and said this was the best they could have hoped for humanity. Amen.
CON – It’s a disaster of unimaginable levels! Civilization as we know it has come to an end! Tomorrow we shall wake up and find ourselves choking to death! Polar bears will drown, whales will be eaten and tigers will end up as Viagra. I hope you’re all happy, doing Satan’s work!
Truth, like always, is somewhere in the middle.
On the one hand, where the hell do any of us get off making the case that cars should remain a luxury? Ratan Tata might be indulging in a PR exercise but he’s got a point when he says there are tons of families out there who’re making do with extremely unsafe modes of transportation because they can’t afford safer alternatives. Anybody who’s seen a woman balance a tiny baby on her lap while clinging to her husband as they sit on his bike and make their way through bumper-to-bumper traffic has a lot of nerve arguing that that couple ought to stick with their bike so that the rest of us, with more money in our bank accounts, can swan around in our a/c cars.
Of course, this is not what a lot of people are saying. They’re making entirely valid points about congestion, pollution and sustainability. But they’re directing their ire at the wrong target. There isn’t a single company on this planet that holds the sole solution to these problems. Collectively, however, we all do. And it is the responsibility of our governments to make sure that the task of saving our planet falls equally on all our shoulders. It is again the government – and in India, I’d like to remind you, we follow that fabulous system of a government that’s by the people – that needs to improve infrastructure. They should do that irrespective of whether or not the Tata Nano is launched because we pay our taxes for a reason but the introduction of the Nano means that they have an added incentive.
By targeting a company that is releasing a product meant for the less privileged, you’re automatically setting yourself up for charges of elitism and discrimination. It doesn’t matter if your points are made of gold and come wrapped in diamonds that magically nourish the starving who lay eyes on it – the moment you start saying giving poor people access to something is bad, you’re automatically the bad guy. Live with it.
As for the actual concerns, I’d say wait and watch. The thing won’t even come out till September so all this hysteria is a bit previous. A lot depends on the final product and the word of mouth publicity it receives. If it’s a bad product, if it’s rickety or unsafe, it won’t sell. It could be priced for a fraction it’s projected cost but people won’t buy it if it doesn’t work to their satisfaction.
Tata also says that it meets emission norms and surpasses them even – I don’t know enough about cars or the science of making them to call bullshit or not, so I’ll reserve judgment until I learn something one way or the other. And as far the terror by numbers goes – well, what did you expect? Didn’t any of you come across the terms “upward mobility” and “aspiration” before? They’ve been talking about the burgeoning middle class for years now: how did you think it would relate to real world terms?
I’d also like to note here that if Tata has indeed exceeded the emission norms, it’s done something very smart. A number of people are lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that India’s carbon footprint has thus far proven to be much less than of the First World’s in spite of the growing hysteria around the question, “What of India and China? They’re going to take all the gas and turn it into CO2 – just like us but with slanted eyes and head wobbling!” We’ve been afforded the luxury of being able to learn from the mistakes of others and in my view, we ought to jump at it with both feet. We should be looking at stuff like the Pivo 2 and trying to beat that instead of the Maruti 800.
Because the truth is also that the Nano isn’t some miracle of modern engineering. It’s a miracle of Indian ingenuity. It’s an exercise in cost-cutting and a gamble on eventual returns. But this much is very true: change is on the way.
Below, because I love it so, is the Pivo 2. I know! I really have no excuse!