Sunday, March 9, 2008

A people's painful progress

Wider Angle

On the day The People’s Car made headlines across the world, I bumped along the dirt road leading to my parents’ house in Guwahati in a rented precursor, the Tata Indica. I passed the home of a neighbour—a man hired by banks to seize and resell cars when owners cannot keep up with payments—and noted the number of vehicles parked in his yard had increased, as it does every time I visit.
With cups of tea and coconut sweets, my family and I gathered around the television to watch the coverage of the New Delhi Auto Expo on NE TV, a north-eastern television channel. Far from the detached, sophisticated airs of the major metros, the newscaster marvelled as she rendered the story. Even my illiterate paternal grandmother seemed to recognize that she had witnessed yet another historic moment in her 85 years divided between rural and urban India.
Because my connectivity tends to be limited in these parts, I missed the extensive coverage of Tata’s hyped Rs1 lakh Nano in the Western press. Upon my return to New Delhi, my inbox burst with the complete opposite of the euphoric atmosphere I had just experienced:
“It Costs Just $2,500. It’s Cute as a Bug. And It Could Mean Global Disaster.” That was a headline from an opinion piece in The Washington Post.
An excerpt from The Associated Press: “Tata Nano will lead to possibly millions more cars hitting already clogged Indian roads, adding to mounting air and noise pollution problems.”
A headline from The New York Times: “Indians Hit the Road Amid Elephants.” That one struck home as my family once owned four elephants, contracted to haul timber and scrap. When the last one died, my uncle took the insurance money and bought a city bus. Steady as they were, elephants had no role in the urban economy my rural relatives sought to enter.
Thus, in many ways, the North-East was the perfect place to be in the days that the world arrogantly fretted over how a cheap car might ruin everyone else’s happiness. As the Auto Expo unfolded in New Delhi, Guwahati was plastered with billboards advertising another auto fair to be held next month.
According to the R.K. Swamy BBDO Guide to Urban Markets, based on 2004 data, Assam is ranked third in car ownership per capita; Kerala holds the top spot, followed by Gujarat. Meanwhile, the nearby Nagaland capital of Kohima boasts more cars per person than any other city of India.
There are multiple, complicated reasons for these statistics, from tax breaks to ready loans to militants and civil servants flush with black money. But what has struck me in a half-dozen visits home over the last three years is that progress is actually under way, partly triggered by all the cars: wider roads, new flyovers, national highways. To compete, bus transport actually has gotten better and connects more far-flung places. As I have written before, much remains to be done and road conditions in the rural North-East remain abysmal and crumble under floods. But the frantic pace of development reflects the government’s recognition that things could no longer continue the way they were —just as my family realized when they traded contracting elephants for a bus.
It is an example worth offering to the sceptics who suddenly purport to care about the environment or our congested roadways (we also might want to add that we have seven or eight cars per 1,000 people, while the US has more than 400).
“This is a democracy,” Vishnu Mathur, executive director of the Automotive Component Manufacturing Association of India, told me. “Infrastructure responds to demand.”
India shines in crisis. The global coverage and perceptions of the new Tata Nano underscore how illogical that reality can sometimes seen
Translation: In crisis, India shines. To Westerners, including my American-born and –raised self, such is a perplexing and illogical turn of events. And the coverage and perceptions of the Tata Nano underscore this quandary: green or dream, to celebrate or condemn?
As I read the foreign reports this week, I recalled the opening lines of an essay in Time magazine last year: “…my rental car had to halt behind a long line of trucks and buses belching diesel fumes into the warm night air. The cause of the holdup: an army truck lying mangled in a roadside ditch, another victim, said one of the hundreds of onlookers, of the treacherous narrow and winding roads… The scene was chaotic. …the truth is that much of the new India is still like the old.”
He happened to be describing a road in Guwahati. The correspondent, just on the job for seven months, could be forgiven for not knowing how far the city has actually come.
But it is incumbent on us who know to occasionally remind the world of the distance we have travelled. For the Tata Nano has the potential to drive us further down the path of progress and allow more Indians to come along for the ride—an admittedly imperfect and rocky journey but one moving forward nonetheless.
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