India: Going Nowhere Fast

Maruti Suzuki Assembly Line (courtesy of New York Times)

A story about India’s booming auto industry leads today’s New York Times business section. “Ask a billion people, and 99 percent of them are going to say they want a car,” explains Jagdish Khattar, managing director of Maruti Suzuki India, the country’s largest car manufacturer. “The problem,” he continues, “is: How many can afford it?”

And so Maruti Suzuki, and the other Indian automakers are cranking out inexpensive cars by the lakhs. Car sales within India will reach nearly two million units this year, and are estimated to climb to nearly four million by 2013.

Most tout this kind of industrial muscle and burgeoning consumer acquisitiveness as signs of a brilliantly expansive, vital economy. I see it as further evidence – as if more was needed – that India is a second-rate country with first-rate promise, limited by third-rate imagination and fourth-rate fidelity to the values and traditions of its proud past.

Put another way: India is squandering its Twenty First Century economic opportunity with its mid-Twentieth Century mindset.

It is crushingly depressing to watch India approach its economic expansion with the same myopia and perversion of traditional values with which America charged into its post-war growth. You’d have thought we’d learned something in the intervening fifty-or-so years.

Let’s get back to the idiocy of Maruti Suzuki’s Mr. Khattar, whose attitudes represents pretty-much every Indian business-person I’ve ever met. He sees the problem of automobiles as how to price them so every India family can have one. It makes one seriously ponder whether Mr. Khadder — who lives and works in Delhi — has ever been to India. Gridlock in Delhi has become almost unbearable, despite the fact that heavy trucks are no longer permitted anywhere within the city limits during the daytime. It’s even worse in Mumbai. In Bangalore, where IT sector growth is responsible for more than 1,000 new cars hitting the roads every day, the roadways of both the city and its ever-sprawling suburban development are packed to the point of paralysis.

And aside from traffic congestion, nearly 60 percent of India’s cities already have air pollution levels considered critical, according to Anumita Roychowdhury, associate director of the Center for Science and Environment in Delhi.

I well-understand the significance of personal transportation to quality-of-life. But is the path to an improved standard of living really to put more cars on the road?

In a recent interview with the BBC, Ratan Tata, chairman of one of India’s largest industrial conglomerates (and automakers), Tata Group, described the way in which India’s new car-culture is dominating public expenditure and resource management: “The demand for road use is driving infrastructure.”

This is ass-backwards.

Look at Ireland, another economy currently benefiting from high-performing technology sector. It approached the new century in essentially the same position as India with respect to infrastructure: it had very little that would support international competitiveness. Ireland used the opportunity to create an up-to-the-minute, forward looking, flexible infrastructure and has parlayed those resources into economic success as well as high standards of living. India has created… what? The metros experiencing the lion’s share of rapid economic growth are rapidly ruining themselves, and the rural areas of the country have seen none of the benefits of the expanding economy. Can you name a single person with the temerity to suggest that the quality of life in Bangalore or Pune has improved since the technology boom? Or that Delhi’s shiny new business sattelites, Guragaon and Noida, are anything but mediocre, soulless, instantly dysfunctional non-communities?

Today’s Indians are making the same mistake Americans made in the 1950s: we mistook the tool (the car) for the process goals (easier, less expensive, more efficient transportation). Instead of planning our infrastructure development around our broader objectives of getting from here-to-there, we configured our environment to accommodate driving. In the process, we limited our ability to grow, adapt to changing economic and ecological conditions, created a lifestyle monoculture in the ubiquity of suburban dystopia. America fucked up. With 20/20 hindsight, we can say we should have done differently. But why would a country like India, which has the benefit of a half-century of perspective, make the same mistakes?

The answer lies in two things essential to the character of modern India, but to which few Indians will readily admit. First the upper-echelons of Indian business lack true ingenuity. Second, India’s vaunted spiritual traditions live-on more as comforting superstitions and narrow-minded bigotries than as relevant normative systems for modern, urban India.

Business is booming in India, particularly in the technology sector, in business process outsourcing, and those, like the automakers, who sate the material dreams of the burgeoning affluent and middle class. Who is driving this economic expansion? Legions of high academic-achieving Indians, focusing their studies in practical, commercially valuable fields. India’s astonishing collective diligence and corresponding technical accomplishment are certainly praiseworthy. Indian big business is hard-driving, and has proven to be more-than-competitive in the global economy. Still, a candid appraisal would be that Indian industry reflects vast discipline and extremely limited creativity. (And, of course, there will always be exceptions which prove the rule.)

This is not to say that there are not smart, ingenious people working at all levels of India’s key industrial sectors. My claim is that their innovations are carefully contained within the parameters of generating high performance within existing technologies and business models. Despite training more scientists and roughly five times the engineers than the United States, for example, does anyone really believe that the next paradigm-shifting technology will come from India? Of course not.

I have a theory about the social factors constraining high-level Indian enterprise; but the reason for the lack of daring and innovation is not important for this discussion. The fact that Indian industry operates almost exclusively within tried-and-true models reflects a narrowness of thinking which guarantees that India will not take full-advantage of this rare opportunity to completely reinvent itself. Indeed, rather than re-imagining itself, as Japan has done each time it has opened it doors to new technologies and cultural imports, India is simply copying the American experience of fifty years ago. And in so doing, it is both constraining its potential and making the same awful mistakes.

The problem is: when businesses are making profits and the rich are getting richer, no one in a position of authority wants to disturb the cycle, even if its long-term evils are easily comprehended.

Acquisitive materialism – selfishness, not to put too fine a point on it – is at the heart of this dynamic. In the urban context, in the higher strata of Indian society, me-first is the ethic of the age. Sure, I hear people talk a good game about the application of Vedic, Islamic, Jain, and other ancient Indian religious traditions to timeless issues like the environment and social harmony. I hear even more about Indian ideals of lack-of-attachment and egolessness. But I certainly can’t see any of these principles exercised to any meaningful extent as the country defines and develops itself.

Even the aesthetic sensibility of contemporary India has been lost to the new materialism. Think of all the building that has occurred in India within the last decade – or since Independence, for that matter. How many good designs have been built? I have only experienced one truly great, intellectually ambitious (if also deeply flawed) piece of contemporary architecture in India; are there more? How many world-class painters or plastic artists does India boast these days? Only in literature, music, and perhaps film does India propagate voices that speak in even remote proportion to its share of the world population.

India will persist in creating prosperity for the corrupt, the already-wealthy, and the urban classes poised for upward mobility. In the process, it will continue to cash-in its rich natural and cultural heritage for easy money and the material trappings of affluence. It will defile its landscape while replicating America’s unsustainable consumer society.

What an appalling waste of opportunity!

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47 Responses to “India: Going Nowhere Fast”


  1. 2 ak 13 October 2007 at 11:52 am

    !!! Excellent Article !!! Indian urban areas are fully choked to the maximum capacity and have no room for cars. None of them are bothering about the pathetic infrastructure. Greed rules in India. Consequences will be known in the near future.

  2. 3 Jean Yao 21 October 2007 at 8:41 pm

    “India is a second-rate country with first-rate promise, limited by third-rate imagination and fourth-rate fidelity to the values and traditions of its proud past.”

    Ooch!!

  3. 4 mbjesq 4 November 2007 at 10:27 am

    For anyone who is keeping score at home, the ideas expressed in this essay have just received an echo of support from Tom Friedman in his New York Times Op-Ed piece, No, No, No, Don’t Follow Us.

    I had thought that Mr. Friedman was so horny for all-things-Indian that — much like the Indian jingoists who regularly attack me for identifying anything so-much-as-resembling an imperfection in Indian society — he was incapable of writing this kind of column. Nice to see him in the reality-based community.

  4. 6 Shirley 12 January 2008 at 4:49 am

    While I’m really not familiar with India, this article seems to lay out a logical argument.

    It must be frustrating to be part of a society which you consider ill-driven and falsely directed. Of course, every country has its own challenges and questionable practices. I’m not at all happy with everything here in the US.

    I wish you well and urge you to continue to speak out for what you believe to be right.

  5. 7 mbjesq 12 January 2008 at 4:59 am

    Shirley:

    It is frustrating to be “part of a society which [I] consider to be ill-driven and misdirected.” I am an American citizen.

    Cheers,

    MBJ

  6. 8 Prax 12 January 2008 at 5:02 am

    interesting
    most people prefer 2 wheelers due to acute parking woes here in mumbai
    but it is a family dream and we dont chase suvs and big trucks
    and cars are generally used for full family outings

  7. 9 Ruhi 12 January 2008 at 5:08 am

    I happened to stumble upon your blog, thanks to the links you left in my friends’ comments sections. And I don’t regret it. Love your different insight, even though I might not agree entirely.

  8. 10 jatin 12 January 2008 at 5:47 am

    India is being by God……………

    I think it is still less chaos than that in our minds….

  9. 11 badrirag 12 January 2008 at 6:04 am

    Your post shows more anguish and concern than a suggested approach. out of chaos comes clarity and hopefully out of all these mindless rushing, there will arrive a moment of serenity and peace.

    Cheers

  10. 12 tea4t 12 January 2008 at 6:30 am

    You’ve pithily synthesized exactly what I was grasping at straws to express at http://bedtea.wordpress.com/2008/01/11/todays-rec-reading-democratizing-the-dream-of-driving/. Like so many others, I ended up snarkily questioning the wisdom of a mainstream-media story, then added a YouTube funny. Thanks, and I love the blog (though it does make me miss India a rather startling amount).

  11. 13 finance ninja 12 January 2008 at 8:40 am

    communist! socialist! hahaha. JK. you sound like my co-worker. definitely not a true capitalist. sure, they are actually building a lower quality cheaper car, starting where they can start, and moving on to bigger things from there. no doubt you put a lot of effort into your essay article, but you leave out that india’s economy has grown powerfully with other “emerging nations”. If you’ve read Alan Greenspan’s book he clearly outlines China and India will succeed at becoming a powerful force.

    Did you also know that Tata motors likely bought off Ford’s luxury bran just to get distribution channels to sell these $2500 cars in the USA? who’d buy one? I’D BUY ONE! simple, effective, good mileage, who wouldn’t? it beats honda’s high MPG hybrid cars.

    I just recently replied to some “small old homes for sale in Delphi” and all of them were for over half million dollar’s and that isn’t in India rupees that is U.S. dollars. so yes the rich capitalist will play there game, but with increased standard of living will come increased pay, more jobs, more construction, a building consumer empire like america. you do understand U.S. has the highest standard of living so what country wouldn’t want to repeat ours even if they are starting 50 years behind us. At the rate they are moving (as you suggest) they may be able to take 50 years into 10 years. China is already pushing our country aside so I wouldn’t be surprised seeing India also becoming a top player and as for tata motors stock (TTM) i wouldn’t surprised that all these poor-middle class people that can FINALLY affoard car make this stock roar.

    good piece but too biased and not very capitalistic. i’d suggest it sounds you may be a student? not an entrepreneur.

  12. 14 arvind 12 January 2008 at 8:43 am

    its still has time to hit on the roads..making conclusions before that is firing arrow in the dark..
    why is the world so concerned if the country like india is able to produce a people’s car..
    and india is not replicating america in anyway..

  13. 15 bosskitty 12 January 2008 at 9:36 am

    Maybe India can show American ingenuity that its OK to actually do something about the future and not just talk about it. India’s baby steps are impressive considering the ordinary person uses their vehicle as a tool instead of a fashion statement.

  14. 16 babytanya16 12 January 2008 at 11:04 am

    nice one! good eye opener to those who doesn’t believe that India can be a progressive country sooner than they think. everything’s possible and they are really starting now.. kudos!

  15. 17 akon 12 January 2008 at 11:19 am

    23, 24, 30… This is the percentage hikes that i’ve recieved in the last 3 years in my job….still its not enough… a 3 bedroom flat in the greater noida suburb costs U.S $200,000… this is India of 2008… more capitalistic than ever… It is ofcourse disappointing that the infrastructure has not kept pace… but things are improving….not many are cynical…

  16. 18 Maltesh Ashrit 12 January 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Hi, Good take on the developments that are taking place here in India.
    The fact that you said that the religious concerns on Ecology is not practiced aroung in development is by and large true. In India you would find many people havinf comfort in chaotic living. We prefer shopping in groups, going to movies in groups, are every time we move out we like to have a friend with us. We dont like to feel lonely and grow selfishly. Thats the reason behing the $2500 car. The whole idea is to avail mobility to the masses.

    That said, I also agree that the strain on the economy is very much evident. Its not that we would like to use Automobiles as a tool to development. There are many other options to explore. A car in India is not seen as a tool for transportation, but it is more sort of a status symbol. Many over here in rural feel that having a car, increases chances of them getting married. India is a savings based society, many would like to save more rather that spend. And the fact that a car comes cheap does attract more audience.

    Being an Indian myself, I do feel that the infrastucrure planning could have been done better. The new $2500 car does increase the roads congestion and also increases petrol demand. Indian OIl companiesare already losing 9 Indian Rupees per litre of gasoline sold, that translates to crores of losses on a yearly basis and that’s set to escalate with the new car. The gasoline prices in India are far lower than other places. The Government and the Oil companies bear the brunt.

    I do expect that things shall change in near future, and the concerned authorities do come up with a better transport policy.

    Nice article to end with. Thanks

  17. 19 Saket Rungta 12 January 2008 at 2:46 pm

    I appreciate your concern and thought. Though I value freedom of expression, shouldn’t you avoid some the harsh statements you’ve made? Because, it assumes you know India in all completeness and with all clarity, which is certainly not true. Your views are based on limited space-time and they are just perspectives (by definition of a ‘view’). That said, I enjoyed reading your article, it is thoughtful and well-written.

  18. 20 | Balu | 12 January 2008 at 3:07 pm

    hi thanks for leaving link to ur blog on mine…. a very interesting piece… and i fully agree with your future of India! and I hate it too… traffic congestion is not the only concern here.. consumption of resources are also a concern.. The worst part of the deal is that Indians are going to buy cars like Nano inspite of knowing the impact they are going to make on the India’s oil import, city’s traffic woes and the damage to the environment!

  19. 21 Pulkit 12 January 2008 at 3:39 pm

    “India is a second-rate country with first-rate promise, limited by third-rate imagination and fourth-rate fidelity to the values and traditions of its proud past.”

    Couldn’t have put it any better really… exactly how I feel, but never had your level of literary talent to summarize it like you have!

  20. 22 arvind 12 January 2008 at 5:22 pm

    @ balu
    for ur kind info the tata nano’s fuel efficiency is more than most of the two wheelers..
    and india doesn’t consume even half the fuel consumed by US ..
    so there nothing to fuss about..
    and about congesion whether nano comes or not congesion and traffic problem is inevitable..

  21. 23 Raj 12 January 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Judging the destination , while still on journey is the sign of foolishness . you have a perspective of Gora .
    Firstly .. innovation and ideas can be anywhere ,any time .. dont be surprised if this nano will replace our old Auto rickshaw and revolutionise the Mass transport system .
    We are not west or China – where one ideology and one god runs the life , we are argumentative Indians we grow with ideas , and materialism and self pleasure is part of our spiritualism.

    Grow up

  22. 24 aristotlethegeek 12 January 2008 at 11:36 pm

    @MBJ
    I understand your POV, but I do not subscribe to it. Anybody who has lived in India for a period of time will know what the traffic, pollution and crowds can do to you. Agreed driving in Bangalore and Delhi is a nightmare. But is there any other option? Self denial, anyone? No. It is because metro systems and cab and bus services are available in very few cities. And entry into this field of business is highly restricted. So don’t be too harsh on Jagdish Khattar and Ratan Tata. They are just trying to fulfil a need the best way they can – by not relying on the government – regardless of the state of roads and the traffic situation. Go into the hinterlands of India and you will see ‘real’ entrepreneurship. States like Bihar and Assam which have been ignored wholesale by government have developed their own means of private transport – heavily polluting buses and autos running on a mix of diesel and kerosene spewing out enough smoke to smother anyone following them, carrying twice the recommended load. And these states do not have great roads either. But people are happy with what they have because it is the only means of transport available, and it does get them from point A to B. We can sit here in the cities and crib about the two hours it takes to go from work to home and vice versa. But what about these people?

    I don’t want to begin another tirade against how successive governments have f****d up time and again on the question of infrastructure. Given the state of Indian politics and bureaucracy, the fact that India is still chugging along is a miracle in itself. Comparing India to Ireland is akin to comparing an elephant and a mouse (speaking purely on the basis of population). Maybe they have done things differently. But India needs huge ideas to fulfil its huge needs. Or lots of small ideas independent of each other fulfilling small needs one at a time.

    Jingoism is nothing new to India. We have been starved of heroes for so long that anyone who has even a modicum of talent is immediately deified regardless of their mediocrity. So no surprises on that account. But what irked me about the criticism of the Nano was the derision involved. And that is why I wrote what I wrote.

    Disruptive technologies and ideas are not invented by nations but by brilliant people. And India is surely well endowed with them regardless of the millions of unemployable graduates being produced by third grade colleges. What India needs is solutions of its many small problems. If the Nano is able to solve even a couple of them, then it should be allowed to.

    Indian governments have the reverse Midas touch. Anything they touch turns to ashes. That is why government should get out of the way. Only then will things improve.

  23. 25 aboyfromindia 13 January 2008 at 12:42 pm

    I dont think that India’s auto sector is representative of the thought process of every indian business person. There are great innovators in India..and most of the US’s giants are being literally run by brilliant indian engineers..may it be google or microsoft.
    Talking of our culture and beliefs, India is a multi cultural and ethnic society with a rich culture and past, which is comparable to none. India was civilized even when the so called developed world was living on the trees.
    Talking of frugality, Indians have a tendancy to save money..and this is the primary reasons why indian engineers and doctors are far richer than their american counterparts. The concept of tata nano stems from here.
    I agree with you on infrastructure. There has to be a strong infrastructural framework in place in india. But it is also materializing with the advent of the golden triangle road project..and Delhi has seen some 100 flyovers being built in 3 years.
    Talking of pollution, europe and the US are the main contributors of pollution…and this is no secret. I however agree with the latter half of your post.

  24. 26 aboyfromindia 13 January 2008 at 12:46 pm

    I somehow find your article quite biased and offensive. It could have been written in a more subtle manner. The harsh language usage at some points in the article eclipse the good points you have made.

  25. 27 speakindia 13 January 2008 at 3:11 pm

    I have not read the whole article but I’ve read this portion

    ” Today’s Indians are making the same mistake Americans made in the 1950s ”

    I totally agree with that. I firmly believe that we are 30 to 49 years behind the US in terms of advancement and development and I believe that the problems they are facing today could be our hindrances in near future.Take for instance the high capacity bus service (HCBS) in New Delhi. I’d suggest u read more on it at http://speakindia.wordpress.com/2007/11/18/high-capacity-bus-service/

  26. 28 | Balu | 13 January 2008 at 4:07 pm

    @ Arvind
    Dont get me wrong.. am not against NANO, am quite exited t the innovation that is the 1 lakh car.. and by comparing fuel consumption of India to US you are proving the point of th blogger taht India is following the same consumerist model of USA which has its own advantages yet has big negativ effects on environment and life style.. What we need to do is not denounce the existing sytem but to find a way around may be come up with a NAO which doesn’t run on petrol but on compressed, water, electricity or any other form of energy!

  27. 29 contemplator 13 January 2008 at 4:22 pm

    Many Indian maxims convey that no matter how richly endowed one’s creativity is, one ought to possess the piety of moderate and intelligible conversation. Sadly that is not the case with you.

    I do not disagree that lot of issues concerning India arouse a feeling of disappointment amongst its countrymen and also among caring foreigners. But the mannerism and the acuteness of language chosen here is nothing short of a display of haughtiness. Certainly not all the comments which you have taken effort to convey would be termed accurate.

    Whenever, one attempts to understand a system bigger than oneself one ought to give room for the possibility that one may not have understood the system in its entirety. India is a country with a richness of culture and history unparalleled in this world. To be able to draw it up in such a post and with such alarming acuity, is a direct indication of an immature mind.

    It however is even more heartbreaking to see Indians coming out and suggesting that they support you: possibly to merely enhance their blog traffic, without ever making an effort to under India from an independent point of view.

    Every group of people has a value system which they appreciate, understand and follow. To come out and make statements of these kinds is literally a shame. It is the case of blind man trying to make out an elephant with mere touch. This metaphor seems apt in more ways than one.

    The world is bigger than your mind. Grow up.

  28. 30 skywardfire 13 January 2008 at 9:36 pm

    I’ll have to totally disagree with you when you say Mr. Jagdish Khattar’s attitudes represents pretty-much every Indian business-person I’ve ever met. There are indeed many visionary businessmen, although may be in a smaller magnitude of popularity, who prioritize other things but profit maximization. But to be honest, in a country like India, you got to think the way he does.

    And you cannot compare India to another nation’s development time line. Our approach towards making the country has been different. I’m not saying it’s better than the others, but it’s different. Although I’m with you when you say that businesses are making profits and the rich are getting richer, no one in a position of authority wants to disturb the cycle, even if its long-term evils are easily comprehended. You couldn’t have said it better.

  29. 31 aboyfromindia 13 January 2008 at 9:57 pm

    Actually china is also making a cheap car..i have written about that in the latter half of my post..

    http://aboyfromindia.wordpress.com

  30. 32 Ramesh Natarajan 13 January 2008 at 11:09 pm

    I do not fully agree with your views in this article.

    When Tata proved the world that they can offer a cheap car, other competitors and many individuals are suddenly talking about the lack of infrastructure etc.

    My point is, everyone has got the right to use the public roads, it should not be only for the wealthy people to use the car in the roads.

    The product innovation like Tata Nano will lead to improvement of infrastructure, which should be welcomed.

    Let us feel proud of an innovation, rather than criticizing..

    Regards,
    Ramesh Natarajan
    Global Indian

    Read my article on the same subject: Tata unveils People’s Car – The Nano

  31. 33 brewmaster 13 January 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Interesting and thought-provoking piece. Having lived in India for 28 years and having travelled extensively in the country, I agree with your asessment of the poor state of Indian infrastructure in general compared to Western Europe/The Americas or even parts of South East Asia.
    The state of infrastructure does seem to be improving however (although not uniformly in the entire country) and I would not agree with your statement that “the rural areas of the country have seen none of the benefits of the expanding economy”. I have travelled in rural India extensively over the last decade or so and I can say that I’ve seen the lives of rural Indians improve considerably. Let me give you the example of my friend, Phunchok Dorje, a small farmer and shepherd in the Spiti reigon of Himachal Pradesh. Dorje lives in a village which was reached by a motorable road only six years ago due to the “Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna”, a government initiative to connect remote villages to the rest to the country by road. Before the existence of the road, the villagers had to trek to the roadhead, 12 kilometers away for anything at all that they needed from the nearest town. That included simple everyday things like vegetables, soap or kerosene. After the road was built, the state government started a bus service (incidentally, using a bus manufactured by Tata) and the bus became the village’s lifeline. Not only does it ferry passengers, it serves as a delivery vehicle for anything a villager might need. I saw it carrying everything from medical supplies to clothes, provisions and construction material. One day the they even had a sick mule in there because its owner was taking it to the nearest vet, a day’s journey away. The road and the bus have transformed the life of the villagers. Dorje’s life also underwent a change because of all this. He saved some money and with help from a government agency got a loan to buy a jeep (again, incidentally, manufactured bu Tata). His brother learnt how to drive and they were able to supplement their income by hiring the jeep out to tourists. (At this time, tourism was just beginning to grow in the Spiti reigon because of better road access.)With the extra money, Dorje has been able to afford better education for his children and better healthcare for his family. I think you will agree that this is a case in which government and industry have worked together to improve the life of a rural Indian. This is by no means an isolated case, I’ve known many Indians who have improved their quality of life through such means. I think that slowly but surely, rural India is being transformed by such simple steps, the building of roads and the possibility for villagers to purchase cheap means of transportation.

    As far as urban India is concerned, no one can deny that the large cities like Delhi or Mumbai are highly polluted and congested. I have lived in Delhi for over eight years though and I would say that although Delhi is no pristine arcadia, things are getting better. The introduction of CNG vehicles has greatly reduced the pollution levels of the city. I suffer from Bronchial Asthma and I can personally say that I’m having fewer breathing problems than I did before the advent of CNG. Also, the Delhi Metro, by providing an alternate transport solution, has succesfully taken many vehicles off the road. There are still more vehicles on the road than in 1990 but some growth is inevitable and the number would have been far larger had there been no public transport available like the Metro.

    How the advent of a Rs. 1 lakh car will affect the economic, social and environmental landscape of the country remains to be seen but it certianly is safe to infer that any growth in the fossil fuel consuming auto sector is pretty undesirable, at least environmentally speaking. However, it is also unreasonable to assume that the millions of Indian families who need viable transportation should be left in the lurch. The burden of its population is something India has to learn to live with. Solutions that work in other countries will not necessarily work in India. The growth of safe and efficient public transport is one way to address this issue and the developement of the Delhi Metro is a step in this direction. The corporation that has built the Delhi Metro has plans to introduce metro transit systems for other cities as well, including medium sized, non-metro cities. I for one feel that despite its flaws, public transport in India is much more viable and accessible for the common man than in the United States for instance. Can you imagine living in a small town/ city in the US and not owning a car? The public transport in many cities and towns in the US is abysmal/non-existent. My brother who spent some time in a medium sized city in Florida had a hell of a time trying to get around without a car. There were no taxis to speak of and he had to wait for hours for the bus service and never got anywhere on time. This city was not unlike the city I grew up in in India and they have a viable and efficient bus service and the city is in the process of planning a monorail system. Even cities that do not have public transport offer the option of manual or auto rickshaws and (in some places) taxis for people who do not drive or do not own a car or two-wheeler. How many cities in the US do you think are focussing on public transport right now?

    India is trying to move to the next century with all its flaws and failings. There is rampant corruption in government and there is a lot of work to be done before India can fulfill the destiny that many are predicting for it. I do not think everything the government or the private sector are doing is right. They have made some colossal blunders and will continue to do so. But they have also taken some steps in the right direction… there is hope for India yet and although your criticism is certainly valid, I do not think your bleak, cynical vision is entirely justifiable.

  32. 34 brewmaster 14 January 2008 at 1:06 am

    Oh, and another thing, all this fear about a Rs 1 lakh car putting more cars on the road seems a little unfounded when you consider that one CAN buy a roadworthy, used car in India for about half that price. Of course, this used car will be nowhere as fuel-efficient and emission adherent as the new Tata car.

  33. 35 Aditya Kulkarni 14 January 2008 at 11:46 am

    You’ve written this article without doing any sort of research at all! How can you claim that there is no innovation or ingenuity in India today? Did you know that the Tata Nano has 100 patents field, and 24 of them just on the drivetrain alone? The sourcing for the parts for the Nano are going to be done in a “live-auction” format – Another first for the world and by far the most efficient method?

    Or take the case of Bharti Airtel – Those guys are running THE LEANEST telecom company in the world. They’ve basically figured out outsourcing and are using it in unimaginable ways – Call rates in India are among the lowest in the world, and Airtel seems to be maintaining profitability very well despite that!

    It is easy to complain like you did – But very difficult to propose solutions, and even more difficult to execute.

  34. 36 Matt 14 January 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Mark,

    Interesting take. I tend to differ with you though. I think the problem in India is competent government. If you compare India with China, you see that China is much better at building roads, providing electricity and providing primary education. These are all roles that the government typically provides. I don’t think the problem in India is lack of Bill Gateses it is a lack of Michael Bloombergs.

    I think that acquisitive materialism is not something unique to India. In fact, I would be curious to know what countries you believe don’t have that trait.

    The thing I don’t get about both India and China is why they think cars are a good idea when most people will be living in dense cities. In dense cities, public transportation can move you quicker than your own car. Look at NYC, nobody owns cars and I never think of NYC as lacking in selfishness or acquisitive materialism.

    And can somebody explain to me how the subway in Delhi is clean? Nothing in India is clean, so this makes me think that is just isn’t used enough.

  35. 37 bathildaa 14 January 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Great job. That’s exactly what I wanted to say. There is NO need and it is not even sustainable to copy America’s car culture in India. What India and especially cities like Bangalore need is a good, convinient and safe public transport system. Not some silly ass of a car so that you can show it off to your friends and relatives and well, pretty much everybody who cares to look at it. Not that anybody is going to give your little Nano a second look, but hey who cares, it is a car (or something like it), Right?

  36. 38 Reem 14 January 2008 at 4:44 pm

    I agree with your main point of India confusing the tool with the process goal…
    I want to add something positive about the 1 lac car though (and its nothing to do with the “affordability” thing).
    The key positive about Tata Nano, is that India has managed to “re-think” manufacturing and managements processes, which allowed it to MAKE the car within $2500. The Tata Nano is a landmark in “production and raw material sourcing efficiency”…It is an unparalleled achievement..probably equal to the $100 mobile phone made by Nokia (again in India).

    Besides, the lazy Indian federal & state governments who don’t care about India’s woeful roads and highway infrastructure, have got a kick up their buttocks! Now they MUST act to develop roads at a ridiculous pace or else the Tata Nano will clog the Indian road arteries causing a massive stroke…which could cripple the economy.
    So that way, Tata Nano’s development is a shot in the arm for India’s infrastructure development pace.

  37. 39 mbjesq 14 January 2008 at 9:11 pm

    Matt:

    You have hit on a fascinating thing: the Delhi metro is clean! Even more astounding: the Kolkata metro is also clean!

    Here is the other oddity. In both Delhi and Kolkata, I have seen countless examples of passengers carrying the trash they’ve generated while down in the metro up the stairs to throw on the street as they exit. While this bizarre conduct reflects a lack of clarity on the concept — and is all the more frustrating since the metro stations in both cities have dustbin installations at every street entrance — it seems to demonstrate that pride-of-place can be inculcated.

    Admittedly, these are only two data points; but they suggest something incredibly hopeful. Perhaps the pervasive culture of littering and the utter disregard for public hygiene can be reversed.

    My colleagues and I at Shuddham are working on exactly this problem. If you are interested in some of my never-ending battles with trash in India, a collection of short essays is here. I’d be grateful for your ideas on the subject.

    Cheers,

    MBJ

  38. 40 Matt 14 January 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Good luck fighting trash in India.

    I should have mentioned that I think India needs more Elattuvalapil Sreedharan‘s.

    Hey how much does the metro cost and how does that price compare with going by auto rickshaw? Just curious if it is more or less expensive to use.

  39. 41 designology 21 January 2008 at 9:33 pm

    Dear MBJ,

    I read the comment on my blog post (http://designology.wordpress.com/2008/01/12/the-tata-nano/) and came to this post you put up… at first my indignation on reading the first few lines, surfaced. But as I read further, I quite understood what you meant. And much to my dismay, also agree to certain aspects.

    But I would also like to say, it is easier to talk than do something- even if it does not look like progress in someone else’s eyes.

    Are there any solutions you propose?
    Cheers!
    Darpana,Sarvasva Designs

  40. 42 Dipankar 23 January 2008 at 3:43 am

    Nice work. I went on reading the article. I agree with you on certain points like Choking in Metros.

    However, I have another view point.

    Remember the first time you walked? You also stumbled the first time you tried to walk.

    So let India also stumble like the US in 1950’s. Perhaps then, the Indians will learn to walk.

  41. 43 mbjesq 23 January 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Darpana:

    I confess that the lines which made you bridle were a deliberate provocation. In part, it reflects my discursive strategy to shock folks into paying attention to a point-of-view which has been largely overlooked. In part, it reflects my frustration with a large majority of Indian readers – and probably even more Indians who do not read – whose jingoism cannot tolerate even the slightest constructive criticism of India. And in part, it is simply more fun to write boldly and aggressively, while doing so within the constraints of truth and supportable argumentation.

    I reject the not-so-subtle criticism of my commentary to the effect that “talk is cheap.” True, words are no substitute for action – particularly for those positioned to act – but recognition and discussion of a problem are valuable in their own right, especially when the issue is as poorly recognized as the ramifications of adopting the car culture. And this is, after all, a blog, where communication is, in a sense, action.

    If you wish to take personal aim at my life as one of non-action, go crazy. Some view it as a big-fat-target in that regard; others cut me some slack. Since you don’t know me, I’d suggest that the prudent (and more polite) course would be to put-a-cork-in-it.

    You ask for my solutions to India’s growing car-culture mess. I confess to be neither futurist, technologist, transportation expert, nor planner; but I would suggest that there are perfectly workable existing technologies to address the base problem. The broad outlines of a more sustainable system are hardly rocket-science: cheaper, safer, more comfortable, more convenient public transportation coupled with inexpensive, ubiquitous, non-private, point-to-point, “last-mile” carriage. India’s autorickshaw is already a superb application of technology for the latter function.

    When looking to specific solutions, visionaries should ask: how can we move people quickly and comfortably, maximizing freedom of movement while minimizing the economic and social costs of the intertwining transportation systems?

    I want you to understand that, in commenting on India’s automotive foolishness, I am not attacking the easy, oft-cited environmentalist targets – air, water, and noise pollution; consumption of non-renewable petrochemical resources; and the toxic waste that remains after the car has reached the end of its road (so to speak). These are all excellent concerns; but I am looking at the developmental consequences of the car culture – the dysfunction of the congested urban arteries; the dystopia of suburban development; the paving of our farmland and wild spaces; the inculcation of the consumerist mindset.

    If I could offer one solution, it would be to broaden the discussion of automobile usage to assess the far-ranging and irreversible implications of high-impact industrial trends and strategies. This kind of analysis will demonstrate that we need a paradigm shift, not a better mousetrap.

    Cheers,

    MBJ

  42. 44 animesh nayak 20 February 2008 at 8:21 am

    hi, i would like to make an observation about the emergence of the Nano which deals with a much larger issue.

    For centuries,through colonialism and till now through a supposedlu free market, capitalist economy, the technologically powerful western economies have been exploiting the esource rich third world countries using their intellectual edge. the british took cotton and much else from its colonies, made it into finished goods and sent it back at a premium. alongside, it supressed the minds of the locals, and ensured that they never acquired the same technical knowhow. how else can one explain, that after half a century od ‘independece’, the world’s resourrce rich countries are still the poorest.

    west african cocoa farmers still earn a fraction of whhat western european chocolate companies earn, using the formers invaluable resource. the only way the west, with its shrinking and ageing markets can remain richer then the rest (considering that the worlds riches are finite) is to maintain this technological edge, and most often using the most exploitative means.

    now then, the emergence of the Tata Nano is the start of a new world technological order. for the first time, companies in india and china, staffed wiith brilliant engineers, and brought up in a culture of frugality and everyday innovation are produsing cheaper, better designed instruments for everyday living, doing exactly what technology is supposed to do- spread to all corenrs of the populace, irrespective of peoles incomes and social standing, unlike the west which has used technology to supress others. for the first time , i have travelled to africa, poor parts of india and china and seen people empowered by cheaper, accessible technology. africans no longer have to buy expensive french tractors- they have cheaper , more durable ones- incodentally, making a cheap car is a tremendous technological acheivement, contatry to what some on this blog will make you beleive.

    i have seen the poorest people imprve thier miserable lives with the most intelligent ideas from the third world itself.

    i think we must fear pollution, jammed roads, the destruction of the countryside. i alos feel eventuallly that public opinion will vote in favour of clean air, walkable cities, and better QOL. this will happen. but i alos think we must be enthused that finally we are free of the technological apartheid of the west, and finally can enjoy it in its cheapest most accessible form. very soon you will see cheap wind turbines(suzlon, India), water purifiers(Tata), compressed air vehicles (Tata (ofcourse) and MDI)and scores of outher relevant technologies spreading cheaply and widely. i think what one must understand here is that finally a new kind of engineering has emerged that makes technology and its fruits accessible to all.

    i think the only fear that will outlast all others is what then will hapen to western industry.? all else will just fall into place. cheers for cheap, accessible tech!

  43. 45 Agravat Bipin B 29 February 2008 at 6:19 am

    http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/feb2008/id20080227_377233.htm?chan=globalbiz_europe+index+page_management+%2Bamp%3B+learning

    Learning from Tata’s Nano
    The breakthrough innovations of the $2,500 Nano can carry a lot of important lessons for Western executives.
    Thinking Outside the Patent Box
    How could Tata Motors make a car so inexpensively? It started by looking at everything from scratch, applying what some analysts have described as “Gandhian engineering” principles—deep frugality with a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. A lot of features that Western consumers take for granted—air conditioning, power brakes, radios, etc.—are missing from the entry-level model.

    More fundamentally, the engineers worked to do more with less. The car is smaller in overall dimensions than the Maruti, but it offers about 20% more seating capacity as a result of design choices such as putting the wheels at the extreme edges of the car. The Nano is also much lighter than comparable models as a result of efforts to reduce the amount of steel in the car (including the use of an aluminum engine) and the use of lightweight steel where possible. The car currently meets all Indian emission, pollution, and safety standards, though it only attains a maximum speed of about 65 mph. The fuel efficiency is attractive—50 miles to the gallon.

    Hearing all this, many Western executives doubt that this new car represents real innovation. Too often, when they think of innovation, they focus on product innovation using breakthrough technologies; often, specifically, on patents. Tata Motors has filed for 34 patents associated with the design of the Nano, which contrasts with the roughly 280 patents awarded to General Motors (GM) every year. Admittedly that figure tallies all of GM’s research efforts, but if innovation is measured only in terms of patents, no wonder the Nano is not of much interest to Western executives. Measuring progress solely by patent creation misses a key dimension of innovation: Some of the most valuable innovations take existing, patented components and remix them in ways that more effectively serve the needs of large numbers of customers.

    A Modular Design Revolution
    But even this broader perspective fails to capture other significant dimensions of innovation. In fact, Tata Motors itself did not draw a lot of attention to what is perhaps the most innovative aspect of the Nano: its modular design. The Nano is constructed of components that can be built and shipped separately to be assembled in a variety of locations. In effect, the Nano is being sold in kits that are distributed, assembled, and serviced by local entrepreneurs.

    Be the change, Take positive elements within the box thinking.
    Best
    Agravat Bipin B

  44. 46 tortured citizen 26 August 2008 at 3:43 am

    i could write a novel ohis topic, but ill simply say India blows large donkey balls.


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