'People's Car' at People's Cost
The Indian media is full of celebratory paeans of praise for Tata's 'revolutionary' new 'People's Car' - Nano, which costs a mere Rs. 1 lakh and is all set to replace two-wheelers as India's small-budget vehicle of choice. A typical sample is the editorial in the Hindu which hailed Ratan Tata as a 'visionary' who turned the 'utopian' dream of a low-cost car into a reality, and branded protests against the car as 'murmurs of doubt and jealousy'. This editorial echoed Ratan Tata's own claim of how he was motivated by the social responsibility of providing a family car for people who use scooters.
If You're Ratan Tata…
The lease amount to be paid by Tatas for: Rs.1000 crore for nearly 1000 acres, to be paid over a period of 45 years - is nothing but a swindle; and in effect this downright loot of land is what allows Tata to boast of 'people's car' and 'public purpose'!
For the first five years, Tata Motors would have to pay Rs 1 crore per annum while in the next 10 years, it would pay Rs 10 crore per annum. In the next 30 years, it would pay Rs 20 crore per annum.
Ratan Tata has also claimed that he decided to locate his factory in W Bengal as a favour to the state, as a "leap of faith", "so that more investment could flow to the region". With the Tata's car plant at Singur, what is the truth? Has Tata's investment flowed to Bengal, or have Bengal's taxpayers' money flowed to subsidise Tata? Is the ‘world’s cheapest car’ a generous gift of the ‘visionary’ Ratan Tata to India and the world? Or does its affordability come at a heavy cost of the land, lives and livelihood of the people of Singur?
A year ago, the CPI(M)'s West Bengal Government had claimed that land acquired for the Tata factory at Singur was single-cropped and not fertile, and moreover was acquired with the farmers' 'consent'. Both claims have by now been proved false - and it is not just CPI(M)'s opponents in W Bengal who recognise this but even their Left Front ally, the Forward Bloc. The Forward Bloc holds that the land is highly fertile; that the Chief Minister’s assurance to the Left Front that the land was infertile was a lie; and is demanding a relocation of the Tata plant away from Singur. The West Bengal Government itself has accepted in Court that out of the 997.11 acres acquired for the Tata car plant, owners of just 287.5 acres gave consent; the clear implication is that the bulk of the land has been grabbed by force.
The sops that subsidised the ‘people’s car’ and allowed Tata to offer it at such a low cost are not minor. Economist and former West Bengal Finance Minister Ashok Mitra estimates that the sops given to the Tatas by the West Bengal Government were to the tune of 850 crore rupees. The Tatas were required to pay the West Bengal state government a fraction of the Rs 150 crore spent by the latter to acquire the land; and also received a Rs. 200 crore loan carrying a nominal interest of 1%. Further, the lease agreement provides that the entire proceeds for the first ten years of the value-added tax on the sale of the Nano in West Bengal are to be handed back to the Tatas, also at the nominal interest of only 1%.
Ratan Tata claimed that he located the car plant at Singur to "definitely improve the quality of life in the entire Hooghly district". The facts, however, show that since Tata came to Singur, the reasonably well-off community of Singur has been brought to the brink of starvation and suicide. As for the myth of jobs, this has fast come undone. The casual workers working as watch-men or security guards at the car plant are already in protest, because it is clear that they will lose their jobs as soon as the construction is complete.
Environmental wisdom (which urgently calls for a reduction in burning of fossil fuels) and people-friendly public policy the world over requires that public transport be encouraged, subsidised and given priority in city planning guidelines. In contrast, Indian governments tax public transport highly and subsidise the super-rich Tatas! In a situation where public transport is increasingly being privatised, is unsafe, uncomfortable and irregular, the middle class naturally prefers private transport, and welcome the idea of an affordable car. It is another matter that no number of cheap cars can make travel comfortable for Indians; rather, this can only contribute to further congestion and pollution in the already crowded cities and towns. Any number of ‘visionary’ Nanos are no substitute for a properly planned and affordable public transport network that alone can make travel more bearable for India’s public.