On Cheaper Cars in India

The finance minister, P. Chidambaram, has proposed to reduce excise duty on cars from 24 to 16 per cent, i.e., by one third. He hopes: “industry will seize the opportunity to make India hub for the manufacture of small and fuel-efficient cars.” It is needless to add that this proposal intends to encourage foreign direct investment in the automobile sector, which is at present controlled largely by the foreigners and induce the neo-rich to buy their own vehicles. This will ultimately lead to further worsening of the public transport system, which will be used largely by the lower rungs of the society whose voice, except the election times, does not count for policy-makers.

Passenger cars manufactured here are not such that can be easily sold in the world market to fetch foreign exchange resources to help promote India’s industrial development. They are meant for the domestic market. This clearly understood by the policy makers in the government as well as the foreign investors. In a developing economy like India, certain things need to be borne in mind while encouraging the production of goods and services.  First, they should, as far as possible, satisfy the needs of a large number of people. Second, if the government has to choose between the satisfaction of the needs of a small number of people and an overwhelmingly larger segment of the society, the decision should be in the favour of the latter. Third, the production of those goods and services should be increased, whose augmented quantum would be sufficiently large and divisible to go round.

From these principles, it follows, to quote the late Paul Sweezy, in a developing country like India, “There should be no production automobiles, household appliances, or other consumer durable goods for private sale and use. The reason is simple that to turn out enough such products to go around would require many years, perhaps even many decades, and they are distributed privately in the mean time the result can only be to create or aggravate material inequalities. The appropriate … policy is therefore to produce these types of goods in forms and quantities best suited to the collective satisfaction of needs: car pools, communal cooking and eating establishments, apartment … houses or neighbourhood laundries, and so on.” This will lead to a more rational pattern of production.

Encouraging the production of passenger cars for domestic consumption, besides adversely affecting the volume and tempo of accumulation, is bound to add a new dimension to aggravating material inequalities. People having their own private means of conveyance are bound to develop their own distinctive way of life. To quote Sweezy again, “The automobile increasingly dominates their use of leisure (after work, weekends, vacations) and thus indirectly generates a whole new set of needs… the allocation of vast quantities of human and material resources of private consumer durable goods and their complementary facilities means neglecting or holding back the development of other sectors of the economy and society. Or to put the matter more bluntly: a society which decides not to make the raising of mass living standards the number one priority.”   
Cars are, by their very nature, luxury goods invented for the exclusive enjoyment of a handful of the rich and they are unlike radio, television, bicycle, refrigerator, etc., which retain their attraction even when they are owned by most of the people. French publicist Michel Bosquet is right when he says, ”The motor car is only interesting and advantageous so long as the mass of people do not own it, in the same way as a villa on the coast. The car is a luxury product by definition, because of the market for which it was originally conceived and luxury, also by definition, cannot be democratised. If luxury is within everyone’s reach, nobody gets any advantage from it; on the contrary, everyone hustles, frustrates and dispossesses everyone else, and suffers these things at the hands of others.”

A car may give personal benefits to a handful of people, but at a huge social cost. It occupies scarce space in towns and cities in a country like India. Parking has become a big problem and, quite often, there are violent disputes. Car deprives other road-users like bicycle riders and pedestrians safe travel. In India, most car owners do not care for traffic rules and they try to overtake other modes of transportation and indulge in rash driving. Quite often, the poor and homeless sleeping on the pavements become their victims. Drinking and driving are seldom kept separate and the corrupt police do not care to bring the culprits to books.

Encouragement to the MNCs to set up car manufacturing in India by giving them tax concessions and the cheaper loans to prospective consumers to create the demand are bound to ignite a desire in every individual to possess a car so that “he can prevail and advance himself at everyone’s expense. The brutal, competitive egotism of the driver symbolically murdering the ‘individual’ obstructing the headlong passage through the traffic represents the flowering of universally bourgeois behaviour.”

The myth that motoring is a pleasure has adversely affected the development of public transport because the rich and influential have no interest in the latter. Road development and its use and town planning are oriented to suit car users.

Looking back, one realizes that motorcar came into existence to give their owners the privilege of travelling much faster and at will than others. Looking at the situation in Indian cities and their suburbs, this hope is beyond realization. The increasing number of private cars and the distances to be travelled from the homes in suburbs to and fro the places of work have traffic jams a regular occurrence costing a great deal of time and money on fuel and maintenance. Besides, car drivers are under great mental strain. Studies conducted in the West reveal: “when everyone tries to move at the privileged speed… the result is that nobody can move out at all, the speed of the urban traffic falls to below that of a horse-drawn omnibus… and the average speed of traffic on roads out of town at weekends is lower than the speed of a cyclist. And the condition is incurable: every remedy has been tried and the end result is that things continue to get worse. Radial and ring roads, flyover junctions, sixteen-lane toll highways, all lead to the same result: the more roads there are servicing a town, the more traffic flows into it, and the more paralyzing the urban congestion becomes. The problem will remain insoluble as long as towns exist; however wide and fast a motorway is, the speed at which vehicles can leave it is limited by the rate at which they can be absorbed into the urban network.”

In the US, one has to choose between the car and the towns. The latter may be eliminated by spreading them out along hundreds of miles of highways. This solution is not feasible in India. Commenting on this experiment, Ivan Illich, in Energy and Equity, says, ”The American man devotes more than fifteen hundreds hours a year— i.e., thirty hours a week or more than four hours a day including Sunday—to his car. This includes the time he spends behind the wheel, moving or stationary, the hours of work needed to pay for the car, and to pay for petrol, tyres, road tolls, insurance, fines, etc. … Thus this American takes fifteen hundred hours to travel 6,250 miles, an average of about 4 miles an hour. In other countries, which lack a transport industry, people travel on foot at exactly the same speed, with the added advantage that they can go anywhere at all, not just along asphalted roads.”

Bosquet has reached the same conclusion: the more a society uses privately-owned cars, after a certain threshold is reached, the more time its people have to spend or waste on moving about.

Till the end of the Second World War, urban areas were worth living, but today the increasing number of cars and other motor vehicles have rendered them so smelly, noisy, toxic, dusty and crowded that the rich want to live away in suburbs.

India must draw proper lessons from the experiences of the West without succumbing to the pressures and allurements from the MNCs. It should give topmost priority to the expansion and development of a reliable and comfortable public transport system. Wherever cars are needed, there should be a pool from which one can hire. The question is: will the MNCs allow the vast Indian market slip out of their hands? Did not the other day President Bush told it plainly that the 300-million middle class people with growing disposable income could not be ignored? It is for the Government of India to decide whether it cares for the interests of the 300-million or those of the 700-million plus people who urgently need ‘development with dignity’.

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