Visitors to Delhi 50 years ago will have abiding memories of a family perched precariously on a bicycle alongside their meagre possessions. Twenty-five years later, it was the same picture, with only the cycle replaced by a scooter. Mostly a Bajaj. A couple of decades later the people-mover was the Maruti 800. Try spotting one of those in the capital today. What chance does the humbler Chetak have then? For much of its independent history, India has travelled on the scooter. News of it being consigned to the pages of history evokes nostalgia on a national scale. But it is time we moved on.
Rajiv Bajaj, great-grandson of a man who founded his industrial empire making light bulbs, announced the decision to stop producing scooters at the same time China said its people were buying a million cars a month. Indians bought 133,687 cars in November. With China opening its lead over the US as the world’s biggest market, the centre of gravity in the automobile industry has decidedly moved to Asia. The scooter is an unfortunate casualty of this shift. It is no coincidence that the largest manufacturers of scooters — and bicycles — have at different points in time been Indian companies. The rest of the world had simply stopped using them on a grand scale. Horse carriage-makers painfully learnt the futility of their operations in the automobile age. Fortunately, both Bajaj and Hero have transited to the still-relevant motorcycles.
Yesterday’s people mover is bowing out when tomorrow’s mass carrier is rolling out of Tata plants. And the difference is not merely about purchasing power. The Nano is a product created for the Indian reality. The world can buy the solution off-the-shelf much in the way India took the idea of the scooter from post-war Italy. By interring the Vespa legacy, India is showing a new technological maturity where it can work around the challenges facing it.