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The $2500 car: Is this really a good idea?

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11 January 2008 08:09

One of the toughest aspects of the global environmental debate is that when rich countries insist that developing countries must curb emissions and improve standards, it looks to those developing countries like the rich want to deny the poor the opportunity to improve their lot. Which is why it is so difficult for Westerners to question the thinking behind India's Tata Motors newly-released Nano, the cheapest car in the world, without sounding condescending and paternalistic. Its alright for us to have such luxuries, we imply, but for the sake of the globe, maybe Indians should stick to walking. 

Maybe Thomas Friedman had the right idea when he wrote about the Tata Nano in November last year: instead of asking Indians to forgo the benefits of modernity we already enjoy, we should be warning them not to repeat our mistakes:

The cost of your cellphone 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.

UPDATE: The FT reports the Toyota Prius hybrid outsold the Ford Explorer SUV in the US in 2007.

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