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Is the Nano really necessary?Posted: 24 Mar 2009
In January 2008, when the Tata �Nano� was unveiled with much fanfare, India's Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) came out clearly against the growing trend of private motor vehicles taking over our cities. Today, CSE reiterates its position once again � that it is against all cars, and not just the Nano. Our cities don�t need more cars; they need better public transport.
There is no doubt that a car that is small is better than a bigger car in terms of fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions. �But the issue is not that of small, cheap, big, or expensive cars, but of all cars. The issue is whether it is helping mobility and at what price�, says Anumita Roychowdhury, associate director, CSE and the head of the Centre�s Right to Clean Air campaign.
|Nano, the world's cheapest car. Credit: Tata
Cars take a heavy toll
Cars may drive growth and aspirations, but they can never meet the commuting needs of urban India. Cars choke cities, harm public health and guzzle more oil. More than a half of our cities, especially the smaller ones, are getting smothered by critical levels of pollution and congestion. By 2030, cars will burn up nearly the same amount of energy consumed by the entire road transport today.
Cars can come cheap. Their usage is cheaper, as all cars - small or big - are heavily subsidised in Indian cities. But the hidden costs of using cars are enormous. Through successive budgets, taxes on cars have been slashed to make all cars more affordable. Cars do not pay adequately for their disproportionately high usage of road space or for parking. The government continues to absorb colossal losses in revenues from the luxury use of low-taxed diesel fuel in cars that emit deadly toxins.
The subsidy begins with the manufacture of cars. Car companies get big subsidies at the manufacturing stage through cheap land deals, interest-free capital and other concessions � but this is rarely noticed by the media or the public. Neither the Left Front government in West Bengal nor the Gujarat government made public the full details of their attractive packages for the Tata Nano plant. The West Bengal government�s subsidy package to Tata Motors included subsidies on land, power, tax paybacks, and soft loans. Gujarat made an even better offer.
These subsidies help bring down the cost of production and allow the manufacturer to price the car cheap. Thus, we are certainly not paying the full cost of manufacture of our cars, let alone the cost of running or parking them.
Public transport, on the other hand, gets a step-motherly treatment: our government penalises buses by taxing them higher than the much-pampered cars. The car owner pays a one-time road tax which, in most states, is between 0.5-5 per cent of the cost of the vehicle. The bus pays an annual road tax based on the number of people it carries.
Cars are not made to pay higher for using more fuel and emitting more per passenger. Says Roychoudhury: �Buses, on the other hand, are penalised for moving more people than cars, for taking less road space to move so many people, emitting less and consuming less fuel per passenger.�
Cars of today are truly akin to dinosaurs. They are not part of the solution to the pollution and climate mayhem. In these difficult times of economic downturn, the major car companies are lining up for bailouts worth billions that are forcing Western governments to inject more money into the business � this, in turn, is fanning more greed and greater car dependency.
India spearheads a turnaround
From this perspective, it is truly remarkable that the Indian government has agreed to fund public transport buses � and not private cars - as part of its financial stimulus plan. This move promises to transform mobility patterns and reduce emissions in the years to come. It is significant that the Union government in India has already announced that purchase of buses would require cities to undertake internal reforms, including compulsory waiver of taxes on public transport and increased taxes on private cars. Here is a car-restraint strategy that the industrialised world has not attempted. India can challenge the world to learn from and emulate this model.
Cars are not the answer when a mobility crisis hits our cities. A large share of daily travel trips in our cities is made in personal vehicles that hog more road space, pollute more on a per passenger basis, and marginalise buses and pedestrians. Look at Delhi. Personal vehicles � cars and two-wheelers -- use up more than 75 per cent of the road space, but meet only 20 per cent of the city�s commuting demand. But buses that use less than 5 per cent of the road space, meet more than 60 per cent of the travel demand. Across the country, personal vehicles have completely marginalised the buses that comprise a mere 1.1 per cent of the vehicle fleet today.
Car sales may spiral, but where is the space to drive? More roads are not the answer. Delhi is the most privileged � it already has more than 20 per cent of its land area dedicated to roads. And yet, with just a quarter of its population owning cars, the city is gridlocked.
Cities need mobility, not cars. Says Roychowdhury: �We need to re-design public policies to promote mobility for all - scale up efficient public transport and implement effective tax policies to restrain car use.�
Download Wheels of Misfortune (PDF) from Down to Earth magazine.