The above image is a familiar sight on many Indian roads. Though motorcycles and scooters only have two wheels, they often carry up to five passengers. It is illegal to ride without a helmet in Karnataka but for some reason this only applies to the person driving.
The ‘2-wheeler’ has been transporting the Indian nuclear family for decades: daddy drives while the young son either stands (if it’s a scooter) or sits on the gas tank (on motorcycles) in front of his father. The mother sits across the back seat carefully keeping the pullu (sari end) of her sari close to her while she hangs on to the back of the seat with one hand and holds the baby with the other arm. This is how millions of families get around.
Apparently this was the image that inspired Ratan Tata to design the much-hyped and awaited Nano. But this isn’t an iPod, this is a car: a ‘4-wheeler’ specially designed for the middle-classes. Popularly known as the ‘one-lakh’ car, this is the world’s cheapest automobile with a price tag of 100,000 Rupees (1722 EUR / 2542 CAD / 1284 GBP / 2525 USD).
This technological wonder has been much applauded by the press and heralded as a victory for the middle classes but this has also fed the debate on the state of Indian roads. What will be the consequences of the introduction of a cheap car on the market? What will this do to the already crowded roads and rising pollution levels?
The Nano has also caused speculation about the future of the ubiquitous auto-rickshaw. A cheap means of public transportation, these ‘3-wheelers’ are so much a part of the Indian urban landscape. Will they be replaced by the ‘people’s car’ which is actually cheaper than the price of an auto-rickshaw? The Nano does definitely present many advantages for drivers and passengers compared to the noisy, polluting ‘auto’: a car offers more protection to its occupants while shielding them from rain, pollution and noise.
The debate about the future of India’s roads is a difficult one. Environmentalists are not happy about the introduction of the Nano, but those who can now be the proud owners of a car clearly are. Criticisms in the press are met with the retort: “Everyone has the right to drive!” And so continues the endless debate on India’s future: development is good but at what price and for whom?