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India Driving: from Ambassador to Nano

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:03 IST
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If the travels of a country were to be chronicled by its cars, in the journey from the Ambassador to the Nano is, perhaps, the story of India’s evolution as a nation.

When Hindustan Motors rolled out the first Ambassador Car in 1957 its sturdy body, rounded contours and Mother Earth simplicity immediately bagged it a place in our collective consciousness. Fifty years on, its unchanging form, plodding-yet-comfortable manner and homegrown efficiency has imbued the Ambassador with a sepia-tinted nostalgia. The ‘Amby’ may have been modelled on the Morris Oxford but for most of us, it is quintessentially and uniquely Indian and marks a milestone in our growth as an industrialised country.

And yet, there is something significant about the fact that the once ubiquitous Ambassador car is today on the verge of extinction. These days, chances are that if you shut your eyes and think of the Ambassador, the strongest visual association your mind will make is with the lal-batti, white-sheeted world of politicians and bureaucrats. The old lady of the automobile world belongs to an India gone by — one shaped and formed in the age of the licence raj, when sarkari muscle determined the future, and influence was always inherited, but never created.

Today, as you watch the always-elegant Ratan Tata, stride out of a car that should have logically been too small for his lumbering frame, you are standing face to face with the new India. The Nano — innovative, imaginative and affordable — best captures the spirit of ‘jugad’-street slang for the distinctly Indian ability to find a way around the system. And in this case, as ironies go, the origin of the word that has come to define the can-do attitude of an entire country lies in a makeshift vehicle popular in rural India.

Literally, ‘jugad’ is the colloquial name for water pump sets and a wooden cart miraculously assembled by any local carpenter into a mode of transportation that runs on diesel fuel. The vehicles are not recognised as ‘cars’ by the official transport authorities and so escape paying road tax. They are said to manage 40 km per hour and cost about Rs 40,000 to manufacture. No wonder then that ‘jugadu’ — a word that may have once had the hint of vice — has today come to be the ultimate compliment for the ingenuity of the ordinary Indian. Basically, the word means finding an unconventional solution to a conventional problem. Whether it is using washing machines to churn butter, spreading out stacks of rice and hay on highways for some natural threshing by passing tracks, drawing electricity from overhead wires or magically converting the rim of a cycle wheel into a homespun dish antenna, it’s all about never taking no for an answer.

No wonder then that Ratan Tata calls his one-lakh car “the biggest thing he’s ever done”. Defying sneers, jibes and disbelief from competitors who had declared that the car Tata dreamt of “was just not possible”, engineers worked on the project for over 10 years. And finally, at the coming-out ball of the little wonder, Tata was able to say, “A promise is a promise.”

But if the Nano best symbolises the advent of the entrepreneurial India, some of the responses to the newest car on the block also capture the entrenched class snobbery of India. Admiration for the spiffy and upper-crust Ratan Tata aside, some of the comments have been disparaging enough to brand it the “driver and peons’ car” — in other words a car for ‘them’ not ‘us’. Other critiques have included hand-wringing and lament dressed up as environmental concern. Small cars, the reasoning goes, will mean more cars on the road — and that can only mean smoggy skies and carbon footprints.

Really?

Even if you ignore the argument that the Nano claims to meet global standards on emissions and possibly pollutes less than many two-wheelers already on the road, the more basic debate is one of hypocrisy.

When was the last time you remember (upper) middle-class India being this worried about global warming or climate change or clean air? When was the last time one of us chose to not ride to work in our fuel guzzling SUVs and take a ride on the Metro instead? When was the time we walked or cycled, instead of lazily hop into the backseat of one of the three cars in the driveway, just to pick up biscuits from the neighbourhood store?

It’s a bit like all the chest-beating about electricity theft in city slums while we happily and illegally run our four air-conditioners during peak summer.

At the heart of the matter may be a deeper discomfort than we care to acknowledge. Here’s the question: is the resistance to the Nano in fact a resistance to the democratisation of resources that once separated the rich from the poor?

Every day the privileged India of yore faces a new and startling challenge from the teeming masses it was once comfortable lording it over. In the unspoken class hierarchy that played out on our roads, the guys on the scooters and bikes who bundled together groceries and babies and somehow made it to work and back, were the ‘other’ fellows. We were the ones who looked at them benignly from the cushioned comfort of our leather seats. But now, suddenly, everyone may be behind a wheel and the edifice on which an economic brahminical order was built may slowly come tumbling down. Could that be what’s making some people so nervous?

Statisticians have already drawn up some interesting figures. The high-end Vertu mobile phone that the oxidised blonde on Page 3 is carrying is worth two Nano cars; a night at the presidential suite of the (Tata-owned) Lake Palace in Udaipur is worth the cost of three Nanos; a mid-range luxury jacket from Prada could be traded in for the cost of three Nanos as well and forty Nanos are worth the price of an upper-end Jaguar (ironically, also being bid for by the Tatas.)

These numbers underline the dichotomies of a changing India. But, they are also subtle reminders of the fact that soon nothing may be out of bounds for an aspiring India.

Small towns, big dreams and the beginning of the end of an India shaped only by the privileged few — that is the real story of the Nano.

Get ready for a roller coaster ride to change.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24X7

barkha@ndtv.com

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