World Agenda: Nano, symbol of modern India, completes its bumpy ride





The Tata Nano, billed as the world’s cheapest car, will finally hit the road in Mumbai on Monday, but the diminutive automobile already says a lot about India.

When it was first unveiled, in January 2008, the dinky two-stroke runabout was hailed as a wonder of super-thrifty engineering and a potent symbol of India’s wider ambitions – not least the country’s aspirations to become an economic power capable of rivalling China and, one day perhaps, the United States.

The road the Nano has had to travel down since has been bumpy, to say the least – something that makes it an even more appropriate symbol for its country of origin.

The car’s woes began last year, when the farmers whose land was acquired to build the factory that was to produce the Nano complained that it had been stolen from them. Violent demonstrations broke out around the plant that was being built in the communist-governed state of West Bengal. After a stand-off, Tata, the Indian manufacturer of the car, was forced to abandoned the site, writing off as much as $350 million (£250 million) in the process.
As a result, the Nano, which Tata has promised to sell for a basic price of 100,000 rupees (£1,400), is seven months late and will be produced only in tiny numbers for the next year or so – factors that will cost Tata dearly in lost sales and development costs that it needs to recoup.

The incident spoke volumes about India: not least that the country is struggling to reconcile the needs of big business with those of 800 million rural poor. The row also hinted at the existence of two increasingly divergent Indias: one populated by the affluent, educated middle classes – the kind of people likely to work, say, as executives for a company such as Tata; the other inhabited by villagers who rely on the land for a living, and who still make up the majority of the country’s population.

Over the past few years, it has been the first version of India that has caught the world’s imagination: the India that in 2008 hosted the world’s fastest growing population of dollar millionaires (125,000 and counting) and four of the world’s richest 10 billionaires; the India that has supplied Silicon Valley with many of its brightest minds and which spoke about “the Empire striking back” when Tata, the country's biggest maker of trucks, bought Land Rover and Jaguar, two of Britain’s most prestigious luxury car marques.

That India now looks chastened. Economic growth, which had been motoring along at about 9 per cent a year, has plummeted to about 5 per cent; corporate credit has dried up; and white-collar workers are losing their jobs. Amid a stock market meltdown, India's 40 richest men have lost a combined $212 billion – a jarring 60 per cent slide in their collective net worth, according to Forbes.

There is another reason why the second India – the India who still lives in her villages and often goes to bed hungry – has now moved into the spotlight: next month’s election. This India, while unglamorous, decides who rules the world’s largest democracy and has been courted assiduously by the Government, which has borrowed heavily to fund policies designed to support the poor.

It is when the population of this second India can contemplate buying a Nano that the country can claim to be realising its potential.

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