Mano a Nano: Coming face to face with a Nano*
Pic from Tata Motors website
The Tata Nano is finally a reality. We have all seen it and read about it. We have heard opinions on it from everyone and their milkman. But what is it really – manna from Heaven for the middle class, or the beast that will leave Indians gasping for air on their roads?
There are two main arguments that people are making about the Nano – one, it will add to the already congested traffic on the roads and two, it will add to the pollution on the roads. How valid are these arguments?
Argument 1. It will add to the already congested traffic on the roads: Certainly, it will. All those people who now commute on motorbikes, scooters and scooterettes will now buy the Nano. Traffic will become worse.
But let us step back and think about why we have so many motorbikes and scooters on the roads in the first place. Certainly, no one wants to spend two hours every day stuck in traffic, dicing with daily death in dangerous two-wheelers (with or without helmets) and spending thousands of Rupees each month on petrol. Not to mention the time spent in hunting for parking spots.
So why do they do it?
Because, quite simply, our mass transit systems are grossly ineffective. People prefer risky rides in motorbikes to even more risky rides in overflowing buses and trains.
Before we blame people for choking our roads, let us look at the alternative – buses that are completely inadequate, infrequent and crammed with passengers in every inch of space, including some people hanging on to the doors and windows. Buses that do not stop at required stops, and are subject to sudden route diversions. Buses that are even slower than the surrounding traffic. Passengers that provide free groping and unsolicited massages to women passengers.
And then there are the trains. The trains are present only in some cities, but where they do exist, they are careful to follow the spirit of the buses. So they are also overcrowded and passengers provide free groping in these trains as well.
If this is the alternative that people have, is it so surprising that people would rather take their chance with the traffic and petrol prices?
Argument 2. It will add to the pollution on the roads: Ratan Tata has said the Nano will meet all emission norms including Euro 4 norms. That should answer the debate on Nano emissions.
But let me go further and reframe our point of reference. What is the alternative to a Nano? What does a car-less family use when they all travel together? Sometimes, they all perch precariously on the same two-wheeler (the older kid wedged in the front, younger kid in mama’s lap at the back). Now this situation is way more unsafe than any air pollution. More usually, they take an auto, that rickety, smoke-spewing three-wheeler from Hell. Now, I am not sure what emission norms are applicable to autos, but I am willing to bet that they are less stringent than cars and in any case, the autos on the road do not follow any emission norms to the littlest extent. Just as they do not have electronic meters and any semblance of customer service, but that is another story.
If more Nanos mean less autos on the road, trust me, the roads are going to become a lot less polluted.
So how do we make India’s roads less crowded? By improving the mass transit systems. I had written in a previous post about how we should expand our mass transit systems, integrate them with existing systems and embrace innovative ideas like “share autos” (of course, with emission norms that are in place and enforced). Not all solutions need to involve expensive multi-year projects to build elevated rail systems. Simple solutions, like allowing private operators to run commuter specials during rush hour can work as well. My previous post talks about these and more ideas on improving the mass transit systems.
Come September, we will see a lot more Nanos on India’s roads. Let us see them for what they are – the attempt of our middle class to make the best of a bad situation. Let us not focus on criticising the Nano, but on criticising the state of our mass transit systems. Perhaps then, we may see some change for the better.
* derived from ma•no a ma•no : a direct or face-to-face confrontation.