One short drive for a man, one giant leap for mankind

All hail ‘The People’s Car’, which could liberate Indians from their (bicycle) chains.

In London, trendy, green-leaning marketing executives, especially in the IT-and-design capital Clerkenwell, ride bicycles to work by choice. Some probably see themselves as ‘CycleHeroes’, which is how one recent government-backed campaign flattered those who ‘pedal for the planet’ and help to ‘save the world’ by foreswearing the car – eurgh! – in favour of the bike (1). In India, however, many marketing executives ride bicycles to work out of necessity. They may have worked their way into India’s new, 250million-strong middle classes, and landed themselves cushy jobs in a gleaming skyscraper in the buzzing business districts of Mumbai or New Delhi, but many still can’t afford a four-wheel vehicle.

So imagine the delight of Sandeep Chauhan, a marketing executive in Delhi, when he heard that India’s Tata Group was launching something called ‘The People’s Car’, the cheapest car in the world, which will sell for £1,200 (around $2,500 or €2,200). Chauhan told the Financial Times how difficult (not to mention embarrassing) it is to ride a bike in a suit and tie and to balance one’s briefcase on the handlebars. ‘[So many people] have a car nowadays that you feel bad arriving by bike’, he said. ‘A car says you are in a good position, a good career.’ (2) Now, thanks to Tata, Chauhan can splash out on a People’s Car, or a Nano to give it its official name, and join the millions of people in the developed and very quickly developing world who prefer the freedom, flexibility and – yes – status offered by a car over having to rely on overcrowded, unpredictable public transport or sweating everywhere by pushbike.


The Tata Nano being launched
today in New Delhi

All hail The People’s Car! This simple, rear-engine, four-seater, lightweight vehicle, officially unveiled at a car expo in New Delhi today, is known in India as the ‘one-lakh car’ – because it retails at 100,000 Rupees, or what Indians refer to as one lakh. It costs half as much as the cheapest car currently available – the Maruti 800 – and little more than a high-end motorbike. Its development is part of the Indian government’s ‘Automotive Mission Plan’, where the aim is to make India the world’s destination of choice for the design and production of cars and car parts. The government hopes to create a whopping 25million car-related jobs in India by 2016, and to achieve annual car sector sales of £73billion ($145billion). With India’s middle classes growing by the day, it is expected that an additional 30million households will be able to buy a car by 2010.

This could transform India. If the railways, a byproduct of British colonialism, served India well in the twentieth century, then the rise of a new car culture could change the face and feel of India in the twenty-first. Millions more people will have steady, relatively well-paid jobs on car production lines; miles and miles of new roads and motorways will be constructed to accommodate the new motorised middle classes; and the average Joe Patel will enjoy greater speed and liberty in his everyday life courtesy of the affordable car. The People’s Car: one short drive for a man, one giant leap for mankind!

There’s only one problem. The People’s Car will kill us all. The rise of what some are calling ‘car addiction’ and ‘gizmo obsession’ in India will push the planet over the edge into a fiery inferno. What Sandeep Chauhan and others foolishly and selfishly think of as a wonderful opportunity to get their mitts on the steering wheel of a super-cheap four-wheeler is actually the latest instance of human destructiveness against the planet.

Or so environmental activists and green-tinted Western officials would have us believe. No good news story is complete these days without an hysterical, hectoring warning from the green lobby. And as one British newspaper points out, while the launch of The People’s Car has been greeted with ‘zeal’ by India’s middle classes and aspirant working classes, it has been greeted with ‘worry’ from the environmentalist lobby, which is disgusted by the ‘unbridled enthusiasm’ of ordinary Indians for the super-cheap car, and which predicts ‘a plague of ever-cheaper cars and ever-swelling clouds of climate-changing fumes’ (3). The People’s Car will apparently have ‘drastic consequences for pollution’ (4). Those dirty Indians.

Environmentalists’ discomfort with The People’s Car throws into stark relief one of their core convictions: that the developing world must not achieve the same standard of living or level of wealth as we in the West enjoy, because if it does the Earth will perish. Indeed, one of the main justifications put forward by Western activists today for lowering CO2 emissions in America and Europe is that it will provide a ‘lesson’ to speedily developing nations in the South and the East, and educate them not to make the same eco-unfriendly ‘mistakes’ as we in the West have made (5). One American writer says of China: ‘In its rush to recreate the industrial revolution that made the West rich… China has become the world’s factory, but also its smokestack.’ (6) As The People’s Car was unveiled, one green criticised India’s ‘mad rush’ towards ‘lowering prices [and] achieving mass affordability in the car market’ (7). Yeah - who do those Chinese and Indians think they are, ‘imitating’ the West and trying to recreate our industrial revolutions and leaps forward in mass consumption? Don’t they know there’s a planetary emergency?

Throughout modern history, all sorts of bullshit arguments have been put forward to justify global inequality: ‘There just isn’t enough stuff to go around’, squealed some; ‘Africans and Indians haven’t got the hang of this capitalism thing’, moaned others. Today, the main argument that is marshalled against the rise of China and India, and the desires of their people to enjoy a Western-style standard of living full of cars, comfort and CO2, is the environmentalist one: that is, the development of the South and the East might tip the planet into oblivion. Some Western activists try to doll up their campaigns against development in the developing world in the language of class. A recent study by Greenpeace and its helpers in India said that ‘rich’ Indians are ‘adding to pollution far more than poor Indians’. Apparently ‘as much as 49 per cent of the household pollution a rich Indian generates is from gizmos and gadgets like mobiles, DVD players, laptops, etc’ (8). Yet these Indians are not rich by Western standards; indeed, as our non-car owning marketing executive Sandeep Chauhan shows, many of India’s middle classes enjoy a standard of living that is, at best, similar to that enjoyed by sections of the working classes in Britain. However much green activists use the word ‘rich’ and ‘middle class’ as terms of abuse, there’s no disguising the fact that these Westernised, white-led campaign groups are lecturing brown people for getting ideas above their station – or above their station wagon, in the case of The People’s Car.

In some circles, it has become fashionable recently to slate the late Mother Teresa for her celebration of the ‘virtues’ of poverty and her instruction to the peasants of Calcutta to embrace their destitution as a blessing from God. Yet that moral fraud didn’t have a patch on today’s environmentalists, who use updated PC lingo and the spectre of a future hellfire on Earth to insist that Indians don’t enter into the ‘mad rush’ to become wealthy, selfish car-drivers like we Westerners – and who don’t even promise a glorious afterlife, as Teresa did, to those who agree to live like paupers for the benefit of the health of the planet. Yet today’s eco-miserabilists cannot so easily crush the aspirations of the teeming billions in the developing world. As a used-car salesman in New Delhi said when The People’s Car was launched today: ‘It’s the same dream anywhere in the world. You want a good home, a good car and a beautiful wife.’ (9)

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill asked what’s behind the campaign against 4x4s and SUVs and criticised the desire for a stay-at-home society. Nico Macdonald showed how London’s anti-car Congestion Charge left Londoners stuck in a jam. James Woudhuysen looked at the benefits of coal for Asia’s emerging economies. Or read more at spiked issue Transport.

(1) See A saint in the saddle, Brendan O’Neill, BBC News, 17 July 2007

(2) ‘Green activists concerned over People’s Car’, Financial Times, 8 January 2008

(3) Zeal, and worry, greet India’s new ‘People’s Car’, Guardian, 8 January 2008

(4) World’s cheapest car upsets environmentalists, Guardian, 20 January 2008

(5) See, for example, China in our hands, Comment Is Free, 20 June 2007

(6) As West’s industry moves East, China now the world’s smokestack, International Herald Tribune, 21 December 2007

(7) World’s cheapest car upsets environmentalists, Guardian, 20 January 2008

(8) Rich Indians pollute more, NDTV.com, 14 November 2007

(9) In India, the world’s cheapest car debuts to fanfare, criticism, Christian Science Monitor, 9 January 2008

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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