Nano and Public Transport in India: An interview

I am glad to introduce Anumita Roychowdhury, Associate Director,Research and Advocacy,Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, who has done a useful study on the impact of low-cost small cars in India in October 2007. Here, she gives her responses to my questions in the context of Tata’s Nano getting a huge reception in India. Her article on the issue has been published in Down To Earth dated October 15 2007.

Q: What are your objections against Nano?

A: It is very important to position the debate on small cars very carefully. If we are only comparing cars then small cars are more fuel efficient and space efficient than the bigger cars and SUVs. These certainly give us the advantage of greater fuel savings compared to bigger cars. From that persepctive small cars should be preferred to bigger cars in India.

But we are looking at cars — all cars — big or small — cheap or expensive — from the persepctive of mobility and sustainability. Are cars the best way to move people in our cities? Can our cities deal with the congestion and pollution impacts of the explosive car numbers. It is not an issue of peoples’ right to own cars. But it is about people’s right to sustainable mobility. Should we build our cities for the car owning minority or the commuting majority? It is very clear from all data that we have seen — cars can never meet the mobility requirements of the urban majority even if the car ownership expands phenomenally.

There will never be enough space for all to move in cars in our cities. Car numbers are already booming in India even without the Nano cars. Cities like Delhi and Bangalore are registering 1000 vehicles per day. The nano car and more cars like that in future will only accelerate the process. You have seen the state of congestion and pollution in Kolkata where according to its city development plan 61 per cent fo the households still do not own cars. And the city has no scope of expanding its road space.

Small cars can be more fuel-efficient, but their sheer numbers will undercut the fuel savings possible from the energy savings possible from public transport.

If any city thinks it is possible to meet air quality standards and congestion free roads by pursuing car centric growth will be proven terribly wrong like any other city in the West. Look at Delhi which is most privileged to have more than 20 per cent of its land area under road network. And yet with only a quarter of its households owning cars the city roads are already choked. The land area needed to keep the cars parked in Delhi is nearly 10 per cent which is close to the total green area in Delhi.

There is no further space left to build more roads or provide parking. The city will now have to rise vertically up to build flyovers or multi storied car parks but even that will not help. The personal vehicles in Delhi already use up nearly 80 per cent of the road space but meet only 20 per cent of the commuting demand in the city. But buses that occupy just 3 per cent of the road space meet more than 60 per cent of the travel demand. But the city governments are not looking at the ways to improve the public transport infrastructure to provide comfortable transport for the majority.

Cars already enjoy enormous hidden subsidy in India. Public policy does not aim to recover the full cost of owning and using a car. For instance, the cost of using urban space for parking and using roads, pollution and health damages are not reflected in the taxes and road pricing. At the same time the car industry is constantly minimising its tax contributions and externalising the true costs of its products. A 2004 World Bank study shows that buses on a per passenger basis use one tenth of the road space of that of private cars but the total tax burden per vehicle kilometer is 2.3 times higher for public transport buses than cars in Indian cities. If the cost of investments in the multilevel car parks is fully reflected in the parking charges then car owners will have to pay Rs 30-40 per hour. But car owners pay only 10 rupees.

The only way cities can prevent clogging of their roads is to scale up efficient public transport and put in force effective tax policies that make car usage very expensive. But public policies have not moved adequately on this. If public policy fails to counter the problem of cheap motorization, air pollution, congestion and public health impacts can be very serious.

It is very ironical that when the automobile industry is claiming that it can produce Euro IV compliant cars, there is no public policy to implement Euro IV standards across India. And the cheap cars are expected to explode in smaller cities and towns that are scaling the pollution peak in India. Most of the metro cities do not even feature among the ten most polluted cities in the country. Smaller cities do.

Q: Have you tried to draw the Supreme Court’s attention to this looming crisis in the ongoing M.C.Mehta case against vehicle pollution (W.P.(c) No.13029 of 1985?

A. We had drawn the attention of the Supreme Court through a statement of concern to the problem of motorisation — explosive increase in vehicle numbers and how that was negating the air pollution gains from a range of first generation reforms. We had demanded directons for improvement in public transport and policies to restrain car usage. That did lead to court rulings related to public transport projects and parking policies etc in Delhi. We did not file any affidavit objecting to the introduction of the small cars.

Q: The news reports on Nano claim that Tata’s small car meets the emission standards, especially the Euro IV. Do you agree?

A: Our auto industry can meet Euro IV standards — in fact all those who are exporting to Europe are meeting Euro IV standards in the European market. But unfortunately, there is no public policy today in India to introduce Euro IV standards across India. So even if our industry produces Euro IV compliant cars, our cities cannot benefit from it — especially the smaller cities that will begin to motorise rapidly now.

UPDATE: Sunita Narain’s article on March 27, 2009 can be read here.

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  • Timely post. It is worthwhile to ask whether a diminished right to sustained mobility may also have some unintended benefits. Given that it is likely to affect both employers and employees significantly, is it possible that the investment will start to move away from metros? Will it lead to a hastened growth of more satellite townships, more intercity corridor projects to channel development along highways? Will it lead to more development in second and third tier towns and cities? I remember reading Azim Premji saying a while ago that he was holding up expansion plans in Bangalore. Software companies have been gradually expanding their operations in smaller cities such as Bhopal, Bhubaneshwar, etc. Will this trend (which may also percolate into smaller towns)possibly accelerate if mobility in cities is adversely affected? Will those trends end up taking some of the pressure off metros and end up alleviating the hazardous impact of rapid growth?

  • Completely agree. It is sad that the authorities do not seem to be doing enough to tackle this issue. Or maybe it is that some of these things take time, and we should be more patient…

  • That’s an interesting article…The only quick solution that i can think to this problem of pollution is carpooling and ridesharing in india. With a humongous indian population, the fuel savings and pollution rection could be cut down by huge numbers !