Some years ago, an architectural competition for the ideal house for India was won by a government engineer. His proposal for a single room cement and bamboo home at a cost of Rs8,000 was judged the best entry from across India. Designed 20 years ago, the house was seen as a thrust to a bold new future for Indian domestic architecture. But thankfully, like all new ideas, the project was quickly forgotten.
The Tata Nano, India’s big small car, has been similarly endorsed. As Beethoven’s music resounded in the dark hall, the strobe lights picked up the bubble of the Nano, and yet another conventional—but cheap—car rolled out of the assembly line. At Rs1 lakh, however, the car generated excitement that has reverberated beyond automotive circles. Its export potential, its compact design, its gleaming chrome and dynamic shape all naturally garnered moments of pride for a nation steeped in a perpetual state of unfinishedness. Incomplete roads, broken sidewalks, projects delayed—how could something as good-looking as the Nano be produced in India?
Certainly, in cosmetic terms, there are few objects on the Indian shelf that give such an absolute sense of national self-worth. And yet, beyond the allure of a beautiful product, the car addresses none of the larger concerns implicit in its release. It says nothing about the state of the roads on which it will be driven, nothing about the future of fossil fuels, nothing about technology or emissions or the environment. By all counts, it is a conventional car. It is, as Ratan Tata himself admits, merely the promise of a Rs1 lakh car, delivered.
How, then, do societies with far less need for experimentation promote bold ideas with rigorous parameters? And with less fuss? No one will argue that the central premise behind the Nano is aspirational. Like a house or a watch, people will buy it less to enact a physical change in their life than as a symbolic improvement of their condition. Yet when it is driven, the mere action of its introduction on to the road makes the Nano a public act, to which both the car owner and the manufacturer owe a civic responsibility. Is the one-time payment of road tax enough compensation for the 10 years of congestion and pollution the car will cause?
Without fuss, or Beethoven’s music, Japanese firms have been quietly and effectively working on hybrid cars, taking them from mere experiments to marketable commodities—each year refining the technology and design. Between them, Toyota and Honda have diligently reduced cost, increased electric and fuel efficiency and added features to cool the interiors without air-conditioning. Their understanding of driving conditions in the city and those on long country stretches has itself altered hybrid technologies to minimize environmental impact. A Chinese inverter company has produced a cheap electric car of such high standards that it is to be marketed in Europe. Chevrolet, a US subsidiary of General Motors, known the world over for its gas-guzzlers, is also promoting a new hybrid version, the Chevy Volt. An electric scooter has been introduced by the Italian firm Piaggio. Is there a Bajaj hybrid scooter in the making?
In a world living under the constant threat of depleting resources and increasing emissions, the Tata answer is a blip on the horizon. A conventional car run on ordinary fuel leaves little doubt on the primary intent behind the Nano being just another business opportunity. Yet among the business-minded in India, there are few people such as the Tatas—innovative, culturally conscious, urbane and ecologically aware—to come up with a wholly different car for India. When that will happen is anybody’s guess. The Nano, meanwhile, will slowly sink into the stream of Indian traffic, like all other brands, and be slowly forgotten.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect. Comment at email@example.com