With only 3.5 four-wheelers per kilometre of Indian roads, Nano’s protagonists find enough space for more cars on its roads – a statistical fantasy that is largely misleading. It, apparently, takes into account all the roads and overlooks the fact that 90 per cent of the cars crawl around only on frequently jammed urban roads – a tiny fraction of the total road-length in the country. It fails to reveal bumper-to-bumper traffic inching along on utterly deficient roads in most of our cities. Forget the oncoming hordes of sub-compacts they are incapable of handling even the current level of traffic. Even the tertiary towns are increasingly feeling the pressure of new additions of hundreds of two and four wheelers every month. While impinging on productivity, the legendary jams foul up the air, mismanaged traffic, unruly driving by licence-less drivers and road-rage complete the scene of pandemonium on urban India roads.
Unlike elsewhere in the world, our roads have seldom been upgraded, remaining neglected for years Only now we are just about cranking up our creaky machinery to modernise them that may yield results, in all probably, not before we are visited by mayhem all around us.
All this is not to suggest that those who for so long have been aspiring for their dream cars should be denied the opportunity to own one. ‘Car-penetration’ of seven per-thousand is, truly, dismal. This is, however, historical, overnight reversible of which will entail gigantic efforts and enormous costs that cannot be organised in a jiffy. Not only will a massive expensive re-engineering and up-gradation of the road-infrastructure be necessary, finances will also have to be found for the shooting-through-the-roof oil import bills. And, unless clean, renewable fuels are quickly made available, all our cities might soon enough sport dark carbonic shrouds.
Everywhere, including in the developed world, a distinct progressive shift away from personalised transport is currently discernible, primarily as a measure to combat uncertain oil supplies, their soaring prices, and the menace of ’climate change’. More and more countries are heavily investing in public transport. The Centre, too, has decided to put in place Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRTS) in important cities. Work on some of them is already under way. While that may take some time to materialise, the need of the hour is to push people towards public transport for which decent, comfortable ’green’ buses need to be introduced. Bangalore has decided to introduce air-conditioned Volvo buses to wean away the middle classes. At the same time, governments have to think of discouraging people from owning multiple cars and discourage others who have no places to park them.
Contextually speaking, therefore, Tata’s decision to launch his Nano was not only dissonant and insensitive, it smacks of thoughtlessness and even looks trifle perverse. In the current stalemate, the government seems to have got a lucky break. The Central and West Bengal governments should persuade Ratan Tata to opt for the electric version of the Nano, which he has been reported to be mulling. Although its batteries will be charged by ’dirty’ power, at least the cars will not foul up the air of urban India.