On the Tata Nano as a catalyst for social change

The Tata Nano. A miracle of engineering which promises the moon to whoever buys it. Crash impact certified, cutting edge pollution control, and best of all - a price which puts it in the pockets of the masses - the burgeoning middle class anyway. All good, right?

Not to a bunch of environmentalists who insist on putting a spanner in the works of all thats going well with the car. A few million cars on Indian roads have the capability to convert the economy into a vehicle based one, putting it one step further towards becoming ‘developed’. But, the amount of pressure this is going to put on the global warming phenomenon was never anticipated by any of the world’s may NGOs and organizations who think about these things. They now have to recalculate all their projections. My, what a pity. Recreating a thousand powerpoint presentations is definitely our biggest problem. But let us ignore the wild haranguing and talk about more interesting things.

After the launch of the world’s cheapest car last week, Ratan Tata gave an excellent interview to the Economic Times - a statement from which is quoted below..

I would prefer to just say that I wish I was 10 or 15 years younger, not to do what you have said, but because today the country is really on the move which it could have been five years earlier, but it wasn't. And hopefully it will keep on moving in that direction.

I’m not sure what exactly he was referring to when he mentioned “on the move” - my guess would be the state of the Indian industry, both manufacturing and knowledge. But it also got me thinking about how the Nano can most definitely act as a catalyst for social change in the country. India is known for being a country entrenched in class biases - be it caste, economic or religious. In modern India, I’d like to think the economic bias, as in any other country, supersedes any other by a far margin.

This is in evidence in almost every aspect of Indian society - policemen on the street, are for instance, paid much less than a bureaucrat or the average software engineer. Popular public perception above a particular level of income thus tends to think of them as inferior in some way. It may not be conscious and most people I know will vehemently deny it - but its true. And this is what makes law enforcement ineffective in most cases - a rash driver will have not only the superior attitude, but also the money to pay off a policeman with a bribe superior to his own weekly salary. Similar attitudes apply to household maids and hired help too - they’re seen as ‘servants’ first, and humans second, and are subject to second class treatment by most - specifically the rich and well heeled.

Fortunately, as modern technology reaches the grassroots levels, and per capita incomes rise - this is becoming a thing of the past. People are better informed about their rights, and can do comparisons of how much they should be paid in their respective fields. Cell phones have made communications easier - and standards of living have gone up, since their kids are at least high school or even college graduates. Most have begun working at technology related concerns - call centers or otherwise, and have large disposable incomes.

And this is where the Nano steps in. In a society gearing up to buy scooters and motorbikes, there is now the option of buying cars, however small. Better and safer travel options open up for communities who’ve never before thought of going on a “family outing” because they just couldn’t for one reason or the other. But most importantly, popular perceptions will change once a maid or a sweeper shows up to work in a car. Sure, this might not happen in the next year or two - but it will. No longer will people have the option of looking down upon them - nor will the traffic police or beat constables be as deferential as they used to be - for economic equality, or something moving towards it, is a powerful force - it does wonders for self confidence. And I think this just might be what the doctor ordered for Indian society today.