Tata Nano : melting perception, not ice cream

The Bajaj Chetak remains a symbol of Indian middle class aspirations. In the absence of adequate public transportation services the two stroke scooter remained an affordable way of transport for decades. A similar sentiment seems to have inspired Ratan Tata to create the vision for the Tata Nano. The Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest production car will empower a new generation of Indians who are looking to replace their Chetak. Due to the large number of Nano’s that will be zipping around Indian roads there has been some chatter on accounts of it contributing to pollution, specifically climate change. Though these arguments can be defeated as elitist ad homiest objections (often legitimately so) there are some merits to the arguments especially in the growing concerns about global warming.

Some climate change modeling studies show that India is a huge looser (second only to Bangladesh) when it comes to (a) disruptive weather patterns; (b) inundation of low-lying areas. These are the direct impacts and there are hundreds of other ways by which we will be affected indirectly. We are primarily an agricultural country, with the lives of millions being tied to the monsoon. The impact of climate change cannot be overstated.

However, claims by environmentalists as to how the Nano and the Nano alone will choke the atmosphere, are highly overstated. India as a country even though is amongst the top emitters of greenhouse gases, is still in terms of per capita one of the lowest emitters. The Nano will not drastically change this. Here the Nano is not the dis-positive contributor to the problem but it can be the solution. The claims on the Nano can properly be understood as objections flowing from the perception that emerging economies (read India and China) are causing the climate change problem. This perception is further exploited by industrialized nations to avoid their obligations. Here the Tata Nano can play an important role by adapting and implementing cleaner, greener technologies. Several technical studies point to how plastic unibodies, regenerative braking, reflective glass and paint etc. can be employed efficiently and economically.

I agree as to how the price is generating press and demand for the Tata Nano, however Ratan Tata has realised that his vision should extend beyond merely reworking the Model-T wheel. Here Tata is also developing an electric version of the Nano, called the E-Nano (reportedly with attached or sideby solar panels as well) which might well turn out to be the “world’s cheapest electric car”. Moreover, the E-Nano is expected to continue with the philosophy of providing a cheap passenger car and expected to cost comparatively to the conventional nano.

We are losers from climate change. What makes this more incredible that larger parts of industrialized countries are supposed to become cultivable with the rise in temperatures, in essence they become net gainers! Here we have to help ourselves, by defeating the perception that Tata’s assembly lines are turning out mobile chimneys. Catering to middle class aspirations should be balanced with world wide perceptions. An important concept in environmental law is intra-generational equity and it ties in serendipitously with the Bajaj commercial when it says,”humara kal, humara aaj (our today, our tomorrow)”.

The article admittedly is a policy detour and the result of a climate change law course taken at Columbia Law School (the best legal policy money can’t buy).

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