It is much more than a corporate battle

Rajiv Bajaj, Managing Director, Bajaj Auto, is known to be blunt; a chip of the old block alright. Like his father, Rahul Bajaj, Mr. Rajiv Bajaj doesn’t mince words, especially when it comes to protecting his company’s interests. He’s been at his combative best in recent times as lobbying against his quadricycle project by rival companies intensified.

“Bhargava says he has no problem with quadricycles being used as taxis because that won’t affect Maruti Suzuki. If you travel on a quadricycle as a passenger, that’s okay; but if you own one, you cannot travel because the same vehicle becomes unsafe. That is a selfish point of view and has nothing to do with the society’s good. If it was about concern over safety, he should have been against quadricycles’ use as both commercial and personal vehicles,” he told Business Standard in a recent interview, in retaliation to comments from Maruti’s Chairman R. C. Bhargava.

Four-wheeled autorickshaw

Battle over the quadricycle, a “four-wheeled autorickshaw”, has broken out in right earnest and lined up against Bajaj Auto are heavyweights Maruti, Tata Motors and TVS Motor.

About a year after Bajaj first approached the government for permission, in May a government panel decided that quadricycles would be permitted in this country as a form of intra-city commercial transport within municipal limits.

In other words, they cannot be used as personal transportation vehicles and certainly not on highways, even as commercial transport. The notification has yet to be issued by the government and last-minute lobbying is still on from both sides. Mr. Bajaj’s remarks have to be seen in this context.

The quadricycle that Bajaj has developed is powered by a 216-cc single-cylinder water-cooled petrol engine and weighs 400 kg with a metal-plastic monocoque shell. It can seat four, including the driver, touch a top speed of 70 km an hour and Bajaj claims a fuel efficiency of 35 km a litre.

Given the sharp statements from those ranged on the opposing sides, it is easy to dismiss the battle over the quadricycle as just corporate rivalry. Indeed, the stakes are high on both sides. Bajaj Auto claims to have invested Rs.550 crore in the project, setting up a separate plant that can produce 5,000 units a month. The company sees the vehicle as a natural progression from its autorickshaw.

Maruti and Tata Motors see the quadricycle as a possible threat to intra-city personal transportation over their entry-level vehicles, the Alto and the Nano. That is why they are now happy with the government panel’s recommendation that the new kid on the block be used only for commercial transport. The story thus has all the ingredients of an absorbing battle between powerful corporate interests.

Issues beyond corporate rivalry

Yet, it would be wrong and even dangerous at one level, to merely see it from that perspective. The fight over the quadricycle is one that involves passenger safety, transport evolution and urban planning — issues that are extremely important to this country.

The quadricycle is being positioned as an intra-city transportation vehicle to replace the ubiquitous autorickshaw; or as Mr. Bajaj said, “just adding a fourth wheel to the autorickshaw”. But it is not as simple as that.

When the fourth wheel is added it is not just the category that changes but also the perception by the driver and the passengers. Given the experience in this country, the vehicle will, in all probability, be loaded with more than the four passengers that it is designed for and it will be driven not just within the city but on highways too.

Indeed, it is common to see the highly unstable autorickshaw, with hands, legs and myriad body parts of overloaded passengers spilling out from all sides, zipping along at speeds of over 60 kmph and competing with cars and trucks on the highways. So what prevents the quadricycle from being used in similar fashion?

Mr. Bajaj is arguing for European norms for quadricycles projecting them as safe. But the problem is that in Europe, the vehicle is used either for recreation and leisure or by the elderly and those too young to get a car licence.

It is not used as commercial or personal transport and certainly not with passengers loaded beyond permitted limits. What we need in India are regulations that will fit the use for which the vehicle will be put to, not based on the category of the vehicle. Thus, if in Europe the quadricycle did not need certification for crash worthiness, in India it is necessary for — government norms notwithstanding — it will ply on highways. How do you define what city limits are and how do you enforce the rule that the quadricycle should not ply on the highway?

There is a clever attempt to market the vehicle as ideal for prevailing city traffic conditions where cars can ply at around 40 kmph only.

The solution to this problem is not to flood the market with more vehicles that can drive at just that speed; that will be pandemonium on the road. On the contrary, the solution is to create a better, more efficient public transport system and get cars off the roads. One shudders at the thought of these quadricycles, people bursting at its seams, jostling for space with bigger vehicles on our city roads.

Intra-city people mover

The government sees the quadricycle as an intra-city people mover which explains its decision to permit them for commercial use.

If that is the case, then it should also design norms for the vehicle that will make it absolutely safe and such norms should account for possible over-loading and running on highways.

This could possibly make the vehicle more expensive but that cannot be an excuse for compromising on safety.

This country may have once made the mistake of licensing the three-wheeled autorickshaw which is possibly one of the most unsafe and polluting, public transport vehicles ever designed. The price we are paying for it now is congestion on roads and pollution — air and noise. We should be careful not to repeat the mistake again.

raghuvir.s@thehindu.co.in

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