It may be an Indian consumer's dream — cheap cars for $2,500-$3,000 within reach of millions of a swelling middle class. But it could also prove to be a traffic and environmental disaster.
Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA announced last week they were studying a $3,000 car to compete in India against Tata Motors Ltd.'s planned low-cost "People's Car," which is targeted at around $2,500 and expected to hit the market next year.
For its supporters, cheap cars like these are what the Volkswagen Beetle was to Germany or the Mini to England — the spoils of an economic boom for aspiring middle classes. To its detractors, India will see an explosion in traffic and pollution on its already clogged roads from its more than 1.1 billion inhabitants.
It will add to India's carbon output just as many Western nations push the Asian giant to control emissions of the greehouse gasses tied to global warming.
"India just can't cope with this kind of pace of expansion," said Anumita Roychowdhury, associate director at the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment. "It's just not sustainable, whether from an environmental point of view or in terms of congestion."
The World Bank this year said air pollution in India was already "of great concern."
Sales set to double by 2010
India has low car ownership rates — there are 7-8 cars per 1,000 people compared with 300-500 cars per 1,000 people in many Western nations, but annual passenger vehicle sales in India are expected to double to 2 million units by 2010.
In New Delhi alone, more than 200,000 vehicles are added to its streets every year, where they battle with cows, rickshaws and motorbikes for space.
It's all part of a middle class that will expand by 10 times from its current size of 50 million to 583 million by 2025, according to consultancy firm McKinsey.
"It's a colossal market," said India's well-known auto columnist Murad Ali Baig. "The low-price car market is already robust. Imagine what will happen when even cheaper cars are available?
"The question is — where are all the bloody roads to cope?"
The government is busy trying to build and widen highways across the country, including a highway system that will link New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.
But air pollution is already at "critical levels" in more than half of India's main cities, according to the Center for Science and Environment.
Weak emissions standards
Environmentalists say that while new cars will have emission limits, these are still 10 years behind European levels.
"Cars in India will be on the road for between 10 and 15 years and no one will monitor to see if their emissions worsen over the years," said Roychowdhury. "India is creating a car culture just when other countries are trying to learn from their mistakes."
But many Indians who weave their motorbikes in between traffic would jump on the chance of the comfort of a car.
"If I can buy a 30,000 rupee scooter, then I can now hope to buy a car for 100,000 rupees when it comes out. Now, people like me can think about owning a car," said Aman, a 39-year-old chauffeur who earns about $150 a month. "I drive cars for my employers. Maybe I will drive my own car one day."
Officials say they are boosting public transport — pointing to metro plans in major cities. In New Delhi, the government's switch of buses and taxis to cleaner compressed natural gas (CNG) cut carbon monoxide levels by up to 80 percent.
Companies like Tata say they upgraded all their four cylinder engines to six in order to meet international emissions standards. The company has also manufactured CNG versions of buses.
"This is a democracy. We can't stop people buying cars," said P.K. Nanda, director of the government-run Central Road Research Institute. "We don't want more personalised vehicles, but if there have to be more cars, small is better than large."