Saturday, January 12, 2008

Compassion for the poor or expansion of the market?

A couple of days ago, I read in the news that Tata Motors has unveiled a new automobile, Tata Nano, in the New Delhi Auto Expo in India. This ultra cheap new car costs around $2,500 and can ‘comfortably’ seat four persons. Because of its cheap price and small size, Nano is soon expected to invade India’s already over-crowded streets. Tata Motors declares that this tiny car “brings the comfort and safety of a car within the reach of thousands of families.” The People’s Car, a name given to it because of its expected success among poor families, will be launched in India later in 2008.

Mr. Ratan N. Tata, Chairman of the Tata Group and Tata Motors, said: “I observed families riding on two-wheelers – the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him holding a little baby. It led me to wonder whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family.” Despite Mr. Ratan’s alleged benevolence, Tata Group is faced with some serious ethico-environmental issues which must be addressed if the Group’s claims of compassion and generosity towards poor families in India are to be considered genuine.

First, why the same poor people who are the target of Mr. Ratan's compassion and generosity are protesting against this tiny-cheap-new car?

According to The Economic Time, "West Bengal's main opposition Trinamool Congress on Thursday threatened to stall its [Nano’s] manufacture at Singur plant.” The same source reports that "Leader of the Opposition" in the assembly, Partha Chatterjee, says:

“until farmers get back their land forcibly acquired for the Tata Motors small car plant at Singur, we will not allow the company to manufacture cars there. Mr. Chatterjee also said: “if pressure is put, there will be trouble.” Leader of the Opposition claims that some 347 acres were forcibly acquired by the Left Front government to enable Tata Motors to set up the plant.

In addition to the above serious claims, there was another group of the same poor people who protested in New Delhi against Mr. Ratan’s alleged compassion and generosity. According to The Times of India, the protestors’ T-shirt slogan was bold: “The ($2,500) car has Singur people's blood on it.”

Second, it is common knowledge that India, the second most populous country in the world, is one of the most polluted places on this planet. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), New Delhi, the capital of India, is one of the top ten most polluted cities in the world. According to (WHO), “Over 1 million people [in India] die annually from malaria while another million die from urban air pollution, again mainly from amongst the poor.” The same organization declares that "in terms of air pollution exposures, in a survey carried out by UNICEF, 19.3% of under five children in India were found to be suffering from acute respiratory infections, and only 64% of them were taken to a health provider." Other studies show that “while India's gross domestic product has increased 2.5 times over the past two decades, vehicular pollution has increased eight times, while pollution from industries has quadrupled. Sources of air pollution, India's most severe environmental problem, come in several forms, including vehicular emissions and untreated industrial smoke. Apart from rapid industrialization, urbanization has resulted in the emergence of industrial centers without a corresponding growth in civic amenities and pollution control.” All these data suggest that the same poor people who are the target of Mr. Ratan’s compassion and generosity are already faced with an enormous indoor and outdoor air pollution in their country and do not really need another tiny-cheap-new car to further complicate their lives.

Third, there is another way to describe the real motivation of Mr. Ratan’s compassion and generosity. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote what I quote here in their Manifesto in the mid-nineteenth century:

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

It seems to me that Mr. Ratan’s real intentions are far from being genuine compassion and generosity for the great people of India.

Forth, considering the environmental issues that India
is faced with nowadays, it is only natural to assume that a great amount of money and energy is already being spent on cleaning up the mess. Assuming that the money that the government is spending on the amelioration of the environment comes partly from the tax payers’ pockets, is really a new-tiny-$2,500 car, economically speaking, worth buying? Does really a tiny-cheap car improve that much the quality of people’s lives in India? It is just hard to believe that the children of Buddha and Gandhi equate their well-being and happiness with a tiny-$2,500 car. My hope is that the great people of India answer Mr. Ratan’s cheap definition of ‘comfort’ with a bold 'no'.

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