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Time to frame a roadmap for mobility solutions

MURALI GOPALAN | Updated on December 11, 2014 Published on December 11, 2014

The RE60 (above), Tata’s Magic Iris, and the ubiquitousautorickshaw are all attempts at solving the problem. - S SUBRAMANIUM


On the go: A country as populous and diverse as India needs more mobility solutions. - REUTERS

As the quadricycle debate continues, focus returns to safety and sustainability

First, it was the Global New Car Assessment Programme which deemed the Datsun GO substandard and unsafe for Indian roads. Then there was a lot of debate on the quadricycle with a section of industry opposed to the concept. Finally, we had the Centre relax norms recently on the e-rickshaw for Delhi.

The common thread for these topics, which have been making news over the last few weeks, pertains to the bigger universe of mobility solutions for India. This is a country where the aspiration to own a vehicle goes hand-in-hand with the grim reality of affordability. Hence, while you have the privileged sections of society zoom around in a BMW or Audi, a family of four gambles with their lives day in and out on a two-wheeler.

Those who cannot afford this have to manage with public transport which means crowded buses and three-wheelers. All these vehicles are part of a harsh ecosystem in which cyclists and pedestrians struggle to find their way on overcrowded roads while trucks and buses speed alongside cars and 2/3 wheelers.

Safety first

It is hardly surprising then that India accounts for the largest road fatalities with nearly 150,000 people dying every year. This perhaps was one of the triggers for Global NCAP to indict the GO which had failed crash tests in Europe.

The only problem however is that a majority of road deaths happen outside the confines of a car. It is only pedestrians and 2-wheelers who end up being the most vulnerable.

Rajiv Bajaj is absolutely right when he says that the RE60 is a safer option than the traditional autorickshaw. After all, his product is covered on all sides, which ensures greater security to its occupants. The Managing Director of Bajaj Auto believes that if nobody has any issues with the safety of 2/3-wheelers, it is absurd to question the relevance of the RE60. Six years ago, when Ratan Tata, former Chairman of the Tata group, unveiled the Nano, he reiterated that it was largely intended for the two-wheeler rider.

Surely, Global NCAP would not have approved of the Nano which incidentally also failed its crash tests. But then so did India’s largest selling car, the Suzuki Alto. Manufacturers will argue that extra safety fitments like airbags will only inflate the price of a car in a country where price becomes a critical part of the buying decision. So, does this mean that the status quo continues?

Transport issues

India has a crying need for mobility solutions across its vast and diverse landscape. Some states have addressed this through the Bus Rapid Transit System where Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Karnataka have been particularly successful. Compact taxis like the Tata Magic and Iris are popular in Tamil Nadu and Kerala where people share space and pay a fixed fare to get from one point to another. The next gradation upwards is the minibus which charges a little more for the extra space you get.

In this backdrop, there is absolutely no reason to deny a quadricycle to a 2/3-wheeler user as a mobility solution if this is what he/she is looking for. After all, it is the market which decides what products it wants. This is the same customer who rejected the Nano and there is no telling how he will react to the RE60 either. It is a chance that Bajaj Auto is willing to take because this is what entrepreneurship is all about. And this also explains why others like Piaggio and Mahindra are working on their own quadricycles.

Stronger regulations

However, Indian policymakers must ensure that this vehicle does not enter expressways or other specific zones which are only open to high speed cars. Can laws actually be enforced when, for instance, the Mumbai police struggle everyday to keep two-wheeler riders off a particular flyover intended only for cars? Likewise, people walk away scot free even after not fastening seatbelts or wearing helmets. This is where the new Motor Vehicles Act could, hopefully, make a difference through stringent punishments. The time has come to frame a roadmap which sets norms for different categories of vehicles especially those which redefine mobility solutions for India.

Keeping an eye on safety, these norms will gradually need to get more stringent as the country endeavours to keep pace with global standards. After all, it cannot afford to remain isolated from the rest of the world especially when it is perceived to be a potential superpower in the automotive arena.

Unfortunately, over the past years, only inconsistency in policy has marked the planning process.

Automakers have had to cope with constant changes in excise duty which has played havoc with their product planning schedules. In addition, for a country which proclaims itself as a global hub for cars, a lot more needs to be done for its roads and ports.

Myriad mobility solutions are only inevitable in a market where affordability remains the key. Yet, this must keep pace with framing tighter laws so that manufacturers constantly push the envelope and offer solutions which are nearly at par with counterparts across the world. Change takes time, especially in a system like ours, but there is really no way out unless we want to increase our death tally on the roads.

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Published on December 11, 2014
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