On Monday, Tata Motors unrolled its Nano to the Indian market, making a Rs1 lakh car within reach of Indian families making Rs1 lakh annually. Tata’s groundbreaking car has unleashed a new era in Indian automobile sales.
Opponents of the Tata Nano have two central criticisms of the car: first, that it will exacerbate pollution problems, and second, that it will increase congestion on already bottlenecked roads—particularly in India’s cities. To Tata’s credit, it’s reportedly working on an electric-powered Nano, which will be more environment-friendly. But indeed, both criticisms—particularly of congestion—are valid.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The Tata Nano will add to already congested Indian roadways, but cars are becoming increasingly affordable to Indian families anyway. Traffic in India’s metros is already debilitating, frustrating and terribly costly; indeed, congestion would increase regardless of the Tata Nano, as greater numbers of Indians purchase cars.
Congestion charges, particularly in Indian cities, are imperative. Evidence abounds of such programmes curtailing road bottlenecks. In 2003, London famously instituted a congestion charge for driving around central London—to great success. Such a tiered system—based on where one is driving in a city, and what kind of vehicle one is driving— would force drivers to be responsible about how they get around.
Indian cities could use such congestion taxes to, in turn, fund efficient public transportation. That dual system—where taxes discourage unnecessary driving while also funding advanced public transport—would decrease the need for private conveyance in the cities.
The advantages for public transport are amplified in a congestion pricing system: Not only can taxes fund public transportation, but there would also be more space for public transport on the roads. And as more commuters use trains and buses, public transportation would generate further revenue, and its quality would increase. As a larger section of the population commutes via public transportation, the services will increasingly be held to higher standards.
Finally, congestion pricing must be unfurled very judiciously, and policymakers must be cautious about arousing accusations of elitism. New York famously lost the political will to pursue congestion pricing because of this. Congestion pricing is not elitist as long as public transport is simultaneously ramped up and maintained.
The Tata Nano is certainly a celebratory moment for the Indian middle-class consumer. But it is also a reminder that as ever-more cars enter India’s roads, policy must be adjusted to accommodate greater congestion.
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