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Home > Business > Columnists > Guest Column > Srinivas Bharadwaj

Why some US scribes slammed Tata Nano

January 14, 2008

Tata Nano is the Model-T of India. It represents 'Rang De Basanti,' a freedom no different from what Ford brought to the American consumer about a 100 years ago. And yet, it is already being challenged, not so much on price or on technology. It is considered a polluter, a source of global warming, in short, a threat to humanity.

Among its notable critics are columnists from the New York Times, Newsweek, and several media outlets. Only a few years ago, author and NYT columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that the world was divided into those who want a Toyota Lexus and those who are searching for an olive tree (in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree).

Today, the answer has arrived for the former audience in the form of the Tata Nano. Yet the former author of articles like, 'Two for the price of one' was quick to call the Nano, a 'cheap copy of our worst habits.'

Newsweek, in an article headlined 'A Billion New Tailpipes' was far more critical. 'It turned out to be a four-seater, a bit more than three meters long, with a 642cc engine and made of plastic and glue instead of welded steel,' is how the article put it.

The article quotes a Yale environmentalist, Daniel Esty, as saying: "This car promises to be an environmental disaster of substantial proportions."

The reasons why American journalism is against the Tata Nano are obvious. The Nano was 'not invented here (in the United States).'

Dan Esty has a typical American mindset. Esty, who was quick to praise the Prius (in Green to Gold) to the skies and promote aircraft manufacturer GE, oil-giant BP, does not use the same yardstick that the second law of thermodynamics does.

The Prius gives about the same mileage as the Nano and seats just as many. Yet, at over $25,000, the Prius is the rich man's answer to the environment. I believe that for the rest, there is the Nano.

In the years to come, the Nano might come in a flex-fuel version, or might use ethanol or electric cells. . . but you have to give Tata time to gain marketshare AND innovate at the low price point. Which is why I must ask: "Why the double fuel-efficiency standards, Mr Esty?"

As relations between India and the US started to blossom recently, a 'fair trade' agreement was aimed at heralding a new era of cooperation, namely mangoes and motorcycles. The mango was previously seen as endangering the environment. In a compromise aimed at going easy on the mango, Harley Davidson was to enter the Indian market with a motorcycle that gives less mileage than the Nano and costs Rs 4 to 14 lakh (Rs 400,000 to Rs 1.4 millon). There was little comment from Tom Friedman then, saying, 'No, no, no, don't follow us. Drive your own scooters.'

And finally I must end with the Golden Arches. In a recent report, published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the livestock sector was reported as generating more 18 percent greenhouse gas emissions -- as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent -- than the transport sector.

Tom Friedman, who once seemed to believe that McDonald's was the answer to world peace, might next call for a moratorium on the burger -- when there is an Indian fast food company that sells burgers and chicken nuggets a little cheaper.

Srinivas Bharadwaj is an engineer and author of a novel, Kurukshetra.

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