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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The World’s Cheapest Car

Air Date: Week of

Car ownership for India’s growing middle class may becoming a bit more accessible. The Tata Motor Company announced they will manufacture the Nano Car with a pricetag of just $2,500. Host Steve Curwood talks with Sunita Narain, director of the Center for Science and the Environment in Delhi, about what the Nano Car could mean for the developing world and how India should handle its transportation issues.


CURWOOD: Tata Motors, a car company in India, has just unveiled its newest auto. It’s a four-door hatchback that will sell for about $2,500 dollars. That means that millions of consumers in developing countries who currently rely on motorbikes, or buses, or their feet, will be able to achieve that dream of middle-class life and buy a car.

Some commentators are welcoming this new people’s car as a sign of India’s progress, and a safer alternative than overcrowded buses or overloaded motorbikes. Others see a cause for worry—more smog at home and more greenhouse emissions.

Sunita Narain, Director of the Center for Science and the Environment spoke on the phone now from her office in Delhi, India. She says India needs to radically improve its public transportation rather than boost the number of cars clogging the roads.

NARAIN: The numbers of people who travel on the bus are much larger than the numbers of people who travel by motorbike or by car. Cars actually in my city, travels only 20 percent of the people or less, but it occupies 90 percent of the road space. And that’s what we want to reverse. That’s what we want to change.

CURWOOD: How do you get to work and do your own shopping?

NARAIN: I go to work in a car because the buses are lousy in India—in Delhi. But I would love to travel by bus or bicycle.

CURWOOD: It’s too dangerous by bicycle, though.

NARAIN: Delhi’s actually now beginning to invest in bicycle lanes and we are beginning to have our first high-capacity bus corridor. So it’s a question of really how Indians will reinvent mobility and whether we, in India, have the confidence to be able to do what the rest of the world has not done.

CURWOOD: So that is the question, then. To what extent is India prepared to leapfrog the rest of the world to not have snarled expressways and highways and traffic mostly at a standstill. I mean, here in the Boston area I think they say that 100 years ago the average speed through town was a little bit faster, using a horse, than it is bumper-to-bumper using a car. So how prepared is India to leapfrog the American and European experience?

NARAIN: That’s the billion-dollar question. That’s the fight we have in our own country and I think there is an understanding that perhaps we don’t have to make the mistakes of the rest of the world. We are trying to say that the public objective of mobility is much greater than the private objective of making money if you own a car company.

CURWOOD: As the numbers of cars go up on the road there in India, one would think that there would be more pollution unless regulations are tightened. What’s the outlook for air quality with these cheap cars coming on the market?

NARAIN: Well I think that’s really the issue. It’s not, you know—the numbers of vehicles increase, the pollution will also obviously follow. The question will become; how fast and tight can the regulations come in, which will mandate cleaner fuel and cleaner technology. We are demanding from governments that these technologies, cleaner technologies and cleaner fuels, kick in as fast as possible. And the government says that it will happen in 2010. I think that’s the big issue for us because already Indian cities are very polluted and clearly we need a different alternative.

CURWOOD: Sunita Narain is the director of the Center for Science and the Environment in Delhi, India. Thank you so much.

NARAIN: Thank you, Steve. Take care.



Tata Group

Centre for Science and the Environment in India


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