First, there were doubts whether Tata Nano would be a proper car. But now, it’s become much more than that. It’s a phenomenon that has achieved a superstar status, the kind only cricketers and Bollywood stars enjoy. The ‘Nano mania’ has gripped not just India, but the entire world and it’s not hard to understand why. This car has the potential to put the nation on wheels in much the same way the VW Beetle did post-World War II or the Ford Model T, nearly a century ago.
The fear that millions would hit the roads in the world’s cheapest car and choke cities has got environmentalists into a froth, and cries against this little car are getting louder. Because of its affordability, the Greens have made Nano a villain. This misguided activism suggests that only the rich should own cars while the less privileged have to suffer the ordeal of abysmal public transport or the dangers of riding four-up on a bike. The fact is that the Nano is the most politically correct car of our times, with its compact size and incredible fuel efficiency. Besides, the problem we face in India isn’t one of too many cars but too few roads and inadequate public transport.
Whichever way you cut it, cars per thousand people or cars per square kilometre, India is still very under-motorised. If they can afford it, people will want cars and why not? Personal mobility is no longer a privilege but a right. But, what we need in place is the infrastructure and policy measures to make it conducive for commuters to take a bus or train to work and use their cars in the evenings and on weekends. Just like in London or Paris.
The real danger that no one’s talking about is the prospect of so many first-time car buyers with no driving experience, being let loose in a Nano. In a country where it’s easier to get a driving license than a passport, the problem of road safety is more lethal than all the toxic fumes spewed out of car exhausts. 100,000 people die every year on Indian roads — that’s an average of 274 deaths every single day, a significantly higher toll than the Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11. Yet, there is no outrage, no media frenzy, no protests. Could any number of road deaths trigger even a fraction of the anger after 26/11? I doubt it. At the risk of sounding callous, it’s not the body count that’s the issue here but the sheer audacity and impunity with which terrorists roamed Mumbai streets killing innocent people at will. The Mumbai attacks were incomprehensible and defied belief but when people die in a car or bike accident, it’s a routine occurrence, easy to imagine, a way of life (and death), so it doesn’t evoke the same reaction.
I remember years ago when I was accompanying Jeremy Clarkson (of ‘Top Gear’ fame) for the India episode of his ‘Motorworld’ series, he was shocked to see a truck barrelling down the wrong side of the dual carriageway we were driving on. He was even more shocked not to see much of a reaction from me. “If that happened on a British motorway, it would have made at least page five in The Times,” he said. We easily accept dangerous driving because that’s just how it is in India.
Our roads don’t even spare our leaders. Rajesh Pilot, Sahib Singh Verma and Zail Singh have all died in or as a result of a car accident. If senior politicians travelling with armed guards and escort vehicles succumb to a road accident, what chance do ordinary citizens have?
So what are we doing about road safety? Nothing. Well, not quite. The crackdown against drunk driving by the Mumbai police has been pretty successful. But, there is greater life-threatening negligence on our roads that goes completely unpunished.
When the campaign against drunk driving started, I was once pulled over for a quick breath check on Marine Drive but the potential killer lay across the road, which the police were oblivious to. A black Syntex tank sitting in the fast lane; dimly lit and unmarked, it was difficult to see it at night. If you think of the shockingly careless way in which construction material was strewn all over what is the most famous promenade in the country, within stone-throwing distance of the Mantralaya, how dangerous must other roads be? And has anyone gone to jail for making them so?
Last monsoon, the mastic asphalt stretch on Mumbai’s eastern express highway accounted for 136 accidents, 47 injuries and six deaths in five rain-soaked days. Yet, no one was put behind bars. It’s about time the law made those responsible for our roads accountable and then went after them with the same enthusiasm it does for anyone who’s had an extra peg.
The true criminals are the Road Transport officers who dish out licences after a farcical driving test to drivers who can barely steer but easily kill. This is the root cause of our horrific safety record. If the licensing authorities continue to get away scot-free, there’s little hope for road safety to ever improve.
Hormazd Sorabjee is Editor, Autocar India.