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India: Innovate or imitate?

Why India shouldn't copy America's car culture—for its own benefit, and the world's.

By Thomas L. Friedman

OPINION features excerpts of pieces by columnists from the Op-Ed page and other sections of The New York Times. All columns from the last seven days are available at nytimes.com; Op-Ed pieces (by columnists and outside contributors), plus Editorials and Letters to the Editor, are at nytimes.com/opinion. Please let us know what you think of OPINION at upfront@scholastic.com.

India is in serious danger, but not from traditional threats like Pakistan or internal strife. India is in danger from an Indian-made vehicle: the world's cheapest passenger car.

In January, India's Tata Motors unveiled the Nano, a mini-car that will sell for $2,500—less than half the price of its closest competitor. Tata 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 problems that comes with all the benefits of globalization. Blessedly, millions more people now have the incomes to live an American lifestyle, thanks to low-cost Chinese and Indian products. But the energy and environmental implications of this new, widespread prosperity 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 rethink following America's flawed transportation model, which relies too much on cars and oil. Cheap cars could overwhelm India's already strained road system, increase its dependence on imported oil, and gridlock its cities.

In November, I was driving through Hyderabad and passed the dedication of a new overpass. The next morning, a newspaper photo showed the overpass completely clogged with motor scooters, buses, cars, and motorized rickshaws. And that's without a $2,500 car.

So what should India do? It should leapfrog us, not copy us. It can't ban a $2,500 car, but it can tax it and use the money for mass transit to give people another cheap mobility option, says Sunita Narain, who directs New Delhi's Center for Science and Environment.

"I am not fighting the small car," Narain says. "I am simply asking for many more buses and bus lanes. 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."

And why should you care what they're driving in New Delhi? Your cell phone costs a lot less today because India took that little Western invention and made it affordable to Indians who make $2 a day. If India applied itself to green mass-transit solutions for countries with exploding middle classes, it would be a gift for itself and the world.

If India innovates in cheap cars alone, its future will be gridlocked and polluted. But an India that leads in both cheap cars and clean mass mobility is an India that will be healthier and wealthier. And it will give the rest of the world cheap answers to big problems—rather than cheap copies of our worst habits.