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Staggering Arrogance

This is a story that most people who care for humanity would consider good news:

After years of secret preparation, the world's cheapest car will be unveiled in Delhi this week...At 100,000 rupees (£1,290), the People's Car, designed and manufactured by Tata, is being marketed as a safer way of travelling for those who until now have had to transport their families balanced on the back of their motorbikes.

Ratan Tata, 70, chairman of the family-run business, who has spearheaded the race for a cut-price car, wrote on the company website: 'That's what drove me - a man on a two-wheeler with a child standing in front, his wife sitting behind, add to that the wet roads - a family in potential danger.'

But Tata hopes also to create a 'new market for cars which does not exist', making them accessible to India's booming middle classes made recently rich by an economy growing at around 9 per cent a year. ...

Last year just over one million cars and seven million motorbikes were sold in India. Tata wants to transform some of those motorbike buyers into car owners and believes that the company can eventually sell up to a million People's Cars a year. Analysts say the project could revolutionise car prices, not just in India, but globally. Several other manufacturers have similar products in the pipeline.

Awesome.  This is a story about three quarters of a billion people who have lived in poverty, well, forever, starting to join the middle class.

But many environmentalists, about 100% of whom I would venture to say own a car themselves, oppose this transition to prosperity:

'There is this mad rush towards lowering the prices to achieve mass affordability,' said Anumita Roychoudhury, of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. 'If vehicle ownership increases very rapidly, we'll have a time bomb ticking away. When you lower the price that drastically, how will you be able to meet the safety and emissions standards? There are no clear answers yet.'

I would challenge this person to design a car that doesn't crash test better than a motorbike.  This is just incredible arrogance, attempting to deny millions of people the prosperity which western environmentalists already share.  (via Maggies Farm)

Postscript: The fact is that environmental quality in every developing nation tends to follow a J-curve.  Early stage development tends to muck things up a bit (think air quality in 1018th century Pittsburg or in China today) but things improve as people get wealthier.  Places like China and India are in some of the lowest reaches of that J-curve.  Attempting to freeze their development in place not only arrogantly denies these folks prosperity, but also cuts off future environmental gains that come with wealth.

Posted on January 7, 2008 at 08:29 AM | Permalink


Nice post, but you made a slight typo.

You meant 19th-century Pittsburgh, right? The USA wasn't even a twinkle in anyone's eye in the 10th century...

Posted by: Some guy | Jan 7, 2008 8:47:32 AM

I had the pleasure of a very brief business visit to India about a year ago. In addition to verifying that there are, indeed, cows wandering everywhere, one of my main observations was the number of small motorbikes in traffic and, more particularly, the number that had two or more passengers.

To make it worse, the typical overloaded bike had a woman in back who, because of her clothes, was riding side-saddle (!). Not only was she going to die in a crash, but even a sudden stop would put her face-first into the pavement.

And this guy's worried about the car meeting safety standards?

Perhaps if this were pitched as a women's rights issue, the lefties would like it.

Posted by: BobH | Jan 7, 2008 9:44:47 AM

My colleagues here in India are worried that Tata's low budget car will worsen the traffic congestion--and they'll have trouble driving their SUVs! I find their concern for the environment really touching.

As for the lefties, they want the poor to lead a simple life in quaint little villages, i.e., remain perpetually poor so that they can be endlessly patronized. God forbid they get corrupted by rich people's vices like the car or the air-conditioner!


Posted by: MCLA | Jan 7, 2008 10:25:00 AM

The same pattern - initial heavy pollution followed by cleaner air and a more pleasant environment - can also be found in places like Kawasaki near Tokyo. The air quality back in the 1960s was apparently horrendous, with traffic cops needing to resort to oxygen masks; I found no trace of that when I went there in the late '80s. It's possible there may be various causes for the improvement, including strict Clean Air laws and the shift of heavy industry to other countries, but smarter, cleaner technology was surely part of the equation as well. Likewise, here in London the air is better than it was during the 1950s, despite the traffic. It does seem hypocritical to deny the Indians and Chinese the same benefits of car-ownership that we enjoy in the West; rather than trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle, it seems to me that the best way forward would be a combination of sensible legislation, decent town planning - and smarter, ever more efficient and innovative technology.

Posted by: Alex Cull | Jan 7, 2008 10:27:57 AM

Maybe he meant 20th Pittsburgh since the first half of the 20th Century was the worst. In 1948 Donora (the birth place of Stan Musial, Ken Griffey Sr and Ken Griffey Jr) air pollution became deadly, 68 people died directly from the pollution. Pittsburgh was known at the "dirty city", with the coal furnaces for the homes contributing to much of the soot. Replacing coal furnaces with natural gas really improved things, plus I didn't have to shovel coal anymore.

Posted by: will | Jan 7, 2008 11:54:35 AM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the Tata car is powered by compressed air instead of a combustion engine. If so, there goes the CO2 argument.

The way I see it, everyone one has the right to improve their life and if that comes at the expense of the environment, so be it. For those really concerned, then the impetus is on them to invent technology to mitigate the impact they fear while giving the people the technology they desire.

Posted by: Andy | Jan 7, 2008 4:59:26 PM

People's Car, huh? Weird because thats what Volks Wagon is. Interesting story behind those cars too.

Posted by: la petite chou chou | Jan 7, 2008 7:27:04 PM

"When you lower the price that drastically, how will you be able to meet the safety and emissions standards? There are no clear answers yet."

Yet, the same people probably claim you can lower the price of healthcare (free), and improve supply and quality

Posted by: anonymous | Jan 8, 2008 3:27:59 AM

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