World’s Cheapest Car: Progress or Eco-Nightmare for India?

medium_tata_nano_1.jpg.jpegAfter years of promising the world’s cheapest car, India’s Tata Motors finally unveiled the $2,200 Nano on Monday.

Soon, millions of Indian families who currently pile onto motorcycles will be able to live the dream of owning a car. What’s more, rapid-growing Tata likely will squeeze out of a tight financial pinch caused by the gloomy global economy.

So, the Nano equals progress, right?

Not according to environmentalists and transportation planners, who don’t know how the already polluted and congested ancient civilization will handle the cheap ride. What’s more, Tata is promising to take the Nano worldwide if it’s a blockbuster in India.

India’s middle class is on the rise, as is the desire to ape Western commercialism. As a result, many people still see a car ownership as a point of pride, a symbol of individual progress, despite growing problems with air quality and gridlock.

On a recent trip to India, the manager of a tire company told me many of his neighbors were putting their names into a Nano lottery to be the first to own their first car. That worried him. "The roads are beyond capacity now," he said. "How will they hold millions of more cars?"

Buses still carry 50 percent of the traveling public while using just 5 percent of the road capacity. Many transportation experts, however, say the Nano will likely cause ridership on public transit to drop while increasing pollution.

A piece in today’s Los Angeles Times quotes Vinay Jaju, an activist working to spread awareness about solar vehicles. "They say everyone having a car is development," Jaju said. "I don’t see it that way. We need to save our resources, otherwise it all becomes a vicious cycle."