The unveiling of India’s ‘People’s Car’ this week will be monumental in many ways, despite the dire warnings issued by some members of the environmental lobby.
Understandably, there is great enthusiasm for the Tata-manufactured motor, which will sell for just 100,000 rupees (Dh9,381) in a poverty-hit country where many jostle for space to sleep on the road, yet alone drive on it.
"I am really excited and definitely buying the cheapest car in the world as soon as they launch it," a rice trader from West Bengal told Reuters.
But the launch of the ‘People’s Car’ has been fogged by (or rather, smogged by) continual references to the environment.
‘Zeal, and worry, greet India's new People's Car’ read the headline to a story by an international news agency, which was picked up across the world.
And that’s correct. For India’s rapidly growing middle class, the car is an exciting prospect. For the environment, it’s a terrifying one.
Many have voiced concern about the environmental impact of India and China’s rapidly growing middle classes, and (especially for the latter) migration to urban areas. India’s middle class, for example, will grow from 50 million now to 583 million by 2025, according to consultants McKinsey.
This concern is certainly justified, given the sheer number of cars, consumer goods, extra flights, and any number of non-necessities that will all take their toll on the planet. But environmental groups and the press should be wary of the ‘green colonialism’ that can so easily creep into such debate.
‘Green’ or ‘environmental’ colonialism is where a country (or even an lobby group) puts pressure on another society with its own interest in mind, or to retain the upper hand in international trade. Examples range from the US lobbying for a CFC ban, to when a millionaire bought a 400,000-acre plot of Amazon rainforest just to prevent people from chopping down trees.
Headlines such as one that appeared in the UK’s Independent newspaper could be read as indicative of this. ‘Just what overcrowded, polluted India didn't need... the $3,000 car’, said the newspaper, which is generally liberal in tone, but has a heavy focus on the environment (which arguably, like the nuclear power issue, isn’t solely confined to the agenda of either the ‘left’ or the ‘right’).
Another example comes from a US green lobby website, which has a story entitled ‘People's Car Will Foul The World's Climate - A $2,500 car is great for the Indian middle class, not the atmosphere’.
The ‘About Us’ page on the website - www.thedailygreen.com/about-us - gives us a clue as to what kind of lifestyle the operator has (and has one wondering whether the site is a satire, too): “After years of the media wars in Manhattan, I was ready to raise heirloom roses in my organic garden [...] And then I saw An Inconvenient Truth. And then one day, my husband Peter said, "Honey, somebody ought to invent a great green website for regular people."
But there is a serious point to be made here. Why shouldn’t India’s middle class be entitled to an affordable car, something that is seen as a basic right in the West?
It is difficult to imagine similar criticism if we were to go back in time to the launch of Europe’s ‘People’s Cars’: the Mini in England, or the Volkswagen Beetle in Germany (ok, let’s forget about Hitler’s involvement in the latter, for just a minute).
But while we must accept the fact that those in developing countries have a right to the middle-class trappings of any other country, we must also tackle the environmental consequences of such consumerism at a government - and global - level. In India's case, this involves encouraging more public transport, and the possibility of increasing taxes on fuel.
Because, before long, the environmental toll of 'People's Cars' - be it those that cost 100,000 rupees or 100,000 dollars - will become too much.
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