NEW DELHI India is in serious danger no, not from Pakistan or internal strife. India is in danger from an Indian-made vehicle: a $2,500 passenger car, the world's cheapest.
India's Tata Motors recently announced that it plans to begin turning out a four-door, four-seat, rear-engine car for $2,500 next year and hopes to sell 1 million of them annually, primarily to those living at the "bottom of the pyramid" in India and the developing world.
Welcome to one of the emerging problems of the flat world: Blessedly, many more people now have the incomes to live an American lifestyle, and the Indian and Chinese low-cost manufacturing platforms can deliver them that lifestyle at lower and lower costs. But the energy and environmental implications could be enormous, for India and the world.
We have no right to tell Indians what cars to make or drive. But we can urge them to think hard about following our model, without a real mass transit alternative in place. Cheap conventional four-wheel cars, which would encourage millions of Indians to give up their two-wheel motor scooters and three-wheel motorized rickshaws, could overwhelm India's already strained road system, increase its dependence on imported oil and gridlock the country's mega-cities.
Yes, Indian families whose only vehicle now is a two-seat scooter often make two trips back and forth to places to get their whole family around, so a car that could pack a family of four is actually a form of mini-mass transit. And yes, Tata, by striving to make a car that could sell for $2,500, is forcing the entire Indian auto supply chain to become much more efficient and, therefore, competitive.
But here's what's also true: Last week, I was driving through downtown Hyderabad and passed the dedication of a new overpass that had taken two years to build. A crowd was gathered around a Hindu priest in a multicolored robe who was swinging a lantern fired by burning coconut shells and praying for safe travel on this new flyover, which would lift traffic off the streets below.
The next morning I was reading The Sunday Times of India when my eye caught a color photograph of total gridlock, showing motor scooters, buses, cars and bright yellow motorized rickshaws knotted together. The caption: "Traffic ends in bottleneck on the Greenlands flyover, which was opened in Hyderabad on Saturday. On day one, the flyover was chockablock with traffic, raising questions over the efficacy of the flyover in reducing vehicular congestion." That's the strain on India's infrastructure without a $2,500 car.
So what should India do? It should leapfrog us, not copy us. Just as India went from no phones to 250 million cell phones skipping costly land lines and ending up with, in many ways, a better and cheaper phone system than we have it should try the same with mass transit.
India can't ban a $2,500 car, but it can tax it like crazy until it has a mass transit system that can give people another cheap mobility option, said Sunita Narain, the dynamo who directs New Delhi's Center for Science and Environment and got India's Supreme Court to order the New Delhi bus system to move from diesel to compressed natural gas. This greatly improved New Delhi's air and forced the Indian bus makers to innovate and create a cleaner compressed natural gas vehicle, which they now export.
"I am not fighting the small car," Narain said. "I am simply asking for many more buses and bus lanes a complete change in mobility. Because if we get the $2,500 car we will not solve our mobility problem, we will just add to our congestion and pollution problems."
Charge high prices for parking, charge a proper road tax for driving, deploy free air-conditioned buses that reach every corner of the city, expand the existing beautiful Delhi subway system, "and then let the market work," she added.
Why should you care what they're driving in Delhi? Here's why: The cost of your cell phone is a lot cheaper today because India took that little Western invention and innovated around it so it is now affordable to Indians who make only $2 a day. India has become a giant platform for inventing cheap scale solutions to big problems. If it applied itself to green mass transit solutions for countries with exploding middle classes, it would be a gift for itself and the world.To do that it must leapfrog. If India just innovates in cheap cars alone, its future will be gridlocked and polluted. But an India that makes itself the leader in both cheap cars and clean mass mobility is an India that will be healthier and wealthier. It will also be an India that gives us cheap answers to big problems rather than cheap copies of our worst habits.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.