It's called the "Nano,"
and it's being hailed as the world's smallest and cheapest car. At roughly $2,000, the newest addition to the Tata Motors fleet has certainly caught the eye of India's growing middle class, and will probably help to boost the national economy a bit. But that's pretty much where the good news ends.
Whenever I visit Kolkata--the West Bengal site of the Singur factory, where the Nano will be built--I wake up in the mornings hacking. I have what I affectionately call "The Black Cough of Kolkata." It's due to the smog. The person-to-particle ratio here is so high that it's not even worth counting. Just imagine that every single one of the 14.8 million residents has his or her own unfiltered tailpipe to suck on every minute of the day, and you'll have some idea of what the air quality is like. Exaggerating? No, sadly, I'm not.
In addition to an exploding population, Kolkata has a massive car-density problem, with approximately 1,421 cars per kilometer
and no emissions standards. Whether you're driving or walking, there is no escape from the smog (unless, ironically, you're in a sealed car). Ancient, dilapidated taxis and buses spew viscous clouds of dark gray soot every time they accelerate, causing severe irritation to the eyes, throat and lungs. To even entertain the idea of adding more pollution to this city, especially to make a profit, is nothing short of taking out a contract on the life of every last resident.
According to Ratan Tata, Chairman of the Tata Group, the Nano's design
was inspired by the sight of an entire family crammed onto a tiny scooter--not an uncommon scenario in India's urban landscape. He thought that if he could build a car small enough and cheap enough for the lower middle class to afford, such families could get around in greater comfort and safety. But despite Mr. Tata's best intentions, the Nano may more prove more harmful than helpful, adding to what is already an unbearable level of smog.
A better option would be for the city to invest in public transportation. But even if we stick to the single-car-for-the-Indian-upwardly-mobile-sector argument, it would make more sense for the powerful and influential Mr. Tata to put his energies behind an electrically powered Nano. The car's small size is ideal for Kolkata's narrow, windy streets. The electric cars could be charged at simple "pumps" that could be easily installed as an addition to an existing structure. And the cost of charging the car would be cheaper for the user than the current cost of petrol.
Of course, the city's electrical infrastructure is in desperate need of an upgrade. Kolkata residents currently suffer nightly blackouts in what's called "load-shedding,"
as power is shifted from one neighborhood to another. In theory, the same neighborhood isn't supposed to be deprived of electricity several nights in a row, but it happens quite a lot.
Still, the cost of an upgrade to the city's power grid would be much less over time than a Beijing-style "clean up" of the constant, growing pollution. And the new petrol stations that will be built to accommodate the gas-powered Nano will only worsen the traffic and pollution problems--not to mention the fact that there isn't much space left to build them in.
The world over, people are attempting various solutions to environmental problems. Most are hard. This one isn't.