From India with Love (and four wheels)
Leonie Joubert

Forget two-wheeled scooter commutes, India's groaning population now has access to the world's cheapest car. And soon it'll be here, too. Leonie Joubert considers a world running amok with R17 000 four-wheelers.

In India, you do it intimately. Travel, that is. And for the less affluent family, the scooter is how many brave the daily rush hour. With a population of over one billion, a quarter of whom live below the poverty line, the scooter and motorbike are the only affordable modes of privately-owned transport. And they're not the safest way to get the kids to their weekly cricket practice.

But all of that is about to change with the launch of the world's cheapest car, the Tata Nano. As the name suggests, it is small. In fact, it's about as small as the amount you'd pay for it: R17 000 (or $2 500).

It has four doors, can seat five people, has passed all the industry safety tests and has an engine (situated in the back of the vehicle like the VW Beetle) that can put out enough power to achieve a top speed of about 120 km per hour.

The pint-sized car was launched at the New Delhi Auto Expo this week where Tata Motors/Tata Group chair Ratan Tata explained that it was the hazardous scooter that motivated the design of the Nano.

"I observed families riding on two-wheelers - the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him holding a little baby. It led me to wonder whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family," said Tata.

He has done just that. And, predictably, he launched the vehicle amidst howls of protest from some environmental quarters about how this car will not, by any stretch, solve the dire pollution or congestion problems plaguing India's cities.

But there is another conflict here. Firstly, privately-owned transport is the privilege of the rich and, per capita, is responsible for a huge whack of the greenhouse gas pollution responsible for today's climate crisis.

Then there's the problem of how the poor get around. In South Africa, because of our history, our rickety public transport system remains the only option for the urban poor or blue collar workers who have not yet made it into the stratum of society's car owners.

When the Tata Nano arrives in South Africa, it will bring a cheap (and fairly pollution-friendly) option to many poorer people. But is the solution to the climate crisis found in putting more cars in the hands of more people?

I'd have thought, given current wisdom, that everyone from your Jag-driving businessman to your builder in his skadonk with a ladder strapped to the roof rack should be encouraged to downscale and take to the busses and trains. If only you could guarantee arriving at your destination with all your valuables intact.

Other sections in this Issue
Extra goodies
Past Editions