Opinionated India is silent to the auto world’s shenanigans.
At the VW AGM on May 10, activists chucked cakes at the chairman of the board, protesting the decision to jointly own a plant in the Xinjiang province in China, home of the Uyghur people. On May 18, Hyundai-Kia agreed to a USD 200 million settlement against a class-action lawsuit for their cars getting stolen due to a lack of anti-theft devices or software.
Over time, consumer activism has been a key factor bringing in developments and regulations into the automobile world. From the days of lone crusaders like Ralph Nader, activism is a collective phenomenon now, driven by the internet, social media and real-time access to information. The world over, in large automotive markets, it is the average consumer who is active about issues like reliability, emissions, safety, privacy, pricing and even comfort. One would expect the same in a market like India, which is otherwise known to be hugely opinionated, argumentative and highly value-conscious. After all, we haggle religiously with the vegetable vendor on the street for that extra freebie, or even complain and return fruit if it is not sweet!
Vegetable price hikes of a few rupees gets us up in arms, but with cars, we easily pay ‘on-money’.
Sadly, that is not the case with cars and bikes. In India, automotive activism is only the domain of a few NGOs, think tanks and a few policymakers. The individual does not object to how prices are regularly increased under the pretext of ‘input costs’ without any transparency. Nor to vehicles without basic safety features under the pretext of ‘higher sticker price’, unless pushed on the backfoot by the policymakers. Nor to the lack of formal vehicle safety norms, in spite of the government promising them since 2014. Nor to the inadequate road signage, emergency services and enforcement. Nor to ministers who keep shifting timelines of infrastructure projects. Nor to older technology being pushed down our throat until recently under the garb of ‘matching our pocket’. Nor to governments for the pathetic and under-served public transport system.
In the 1960s, whenever the bus or tram ticket price increased by a few paise in Kolkata, people would demonstrate. Buses and trams would be burnt. The inside quip was that the bus and tram companies would park their oldest pieces on the roads for the demonstrators to burn and that’s how they got to replace their fleets!
The time is right for the automotive activist in each of us to wake up and get vocal. We have tools that will facilitate this. That is the only way the automaker will be kept in check while the policymaker’s hegemony will be on a leash. We need to make them accountable and action-oriented in our best interest. Nobody else will do us this favour!