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In India, One Cheap Car Could Go a Long Way

The Institute of Road Traffic Education recently estimated that in New Delhi alone, the number of traffic offenses is 146 million -- per day. India's parliament has said that expanding the roads is key to attracting and keeping multinational companies, and to giving motorists space to drive.

"Poor infrastructure is an issue," said Commerce Secretary G.K. Pillai. "We need to expand our roads, and we have to keep working at it."

Then there is pollution. Only eight of every 1,000 adult Indians own a car -- compared with about 770 per 1,000 American adults -- but India's emissions of greenhouse gases are rising fast. Experts say that as more of the country's 1.1 billion people buy cars, India could soon overtake the United States in emission levels.

"Can you imagine if even half of the 1.1 billion Indians owned a car?" said Mahesh Mehta, an environmental lawyer in New Delhi. "We should not be following the Western model of car ownership. I think this will be disastrous in India."

While the Indian government begins to widen roads, Mehta has been lobbying for better public transportation. He said, however, that no one wants to listen.

"I am very worried, since a car is status and everyone wants that in India today," he said.

Marketing campaigns by Tata and other car companies seem to play into the idea of the car as a symbol of wealth. Huge billboards show pretty housewives cozying up to their beaming husbands and their new cars, with slogans like: "Welcome to civilization" and "Your American relatives are not the only ones who can enjoy the good life."

Tata has said it will offer trade-in deals for motorcycles and mopeds. And even driving schools are expanding in preparation for the 1-lakh car.

Saji Kumar, owner of Pradeep Driving School in Kochin, said the cheap cars will be great for business. But he also said that traffic is so bad, he often watches with horror as mopeds drive on the sidewalks during what he calls "Indian rush hour, which is pretty much all the time." He then offered some advice for Indians wanting to buy their first car.

"Please keep your car parked outside your house. Use your moped instead," he said, with a chuckle, but then looked very stern: "I know we all love cars. But how can we all fit?"

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