What does India need most: $100 Computer or Rs. 1 lac car?
Consider this, if you will: Poor Indian Students with brand new $100 Portable Computers, pre-loaded with Full Wikipedia versions in local language (and specially configured for all study levels), and an assortment of other best of breed teaching materials.
Runs on: hand cranked power, and other energy sources
On the other hand, you have this palpably teary spectacle of "Maa, mere paas Car hai", where Indians, old and Young who could never travel in a car before, getting themselves the Rs. 1 lac car at an installment of Rs. 50 a day (this one is from a newspaper headline), packing up India's already receding city road space.
Runs on: Imported petroleum at $100+ a barrel (and counting) giving you 20 kilometers to a litre. The average motorcycle the Nano aims to replace gives 70 kilometers to a litre.
Between a Low Cost Education/Educational Tool vs. a Low Cost Energy Guzzler, the choice is not as easy as choosing a mobile phone for Rs. 500.
Our education budget is around Rs. 3500 ($80) per student per year, so we can think about giving away or subsidizing the cheap computer.
Sadly, guided by the twisted logic that giving students cheap PCs would take away the ministers' power to doctor curriculum, the Government of India was circumspect towards the OLPC, and one suspects the influence of Microsoft's huge PR and lobbying machine working full time against the $100 machine as well. Big companies don't find disruptive technologies eating away their easy lunches.
In comparison, the Tata Nano has had a promising start, having already fueled a race to build small cars. Baja Auto is planning to graduate to Four-wheeler from its famed and highly practical three-wheeled auto rickshaws. Even the Pakistanis have moved in with the Sitara from Habib motors.
The media has been kind to the Nano. Nano made the front page on all newspapers, understandably so - the back page of most papers carried full page ads for the car.
When the Tatas launched their first car Indica, there was similar noise, but few talk about the car nowadays, what with its high maintenance cost and unpromising looks.
The Nano looks like an Electric car and it would be better if they launched an electric version, which would have pleased the environmentalists immensely.
On the TV news channels, they made sure that there were few environmentalists on the panels. The anchors dutifully made the noble pro-environment chitchat while the panelists were guys from the Tata Company, and Editors of Auto magazines who forgot they were journalists, acting like Fan boys for Ratan Tata.
People invoke pride when talking about Nano and they might be justified. But, pride and nationalism often go hand in hand in this country.
Supporters of the Nano say that the Lower middle Class people and the young need cheap four wheeler but what we need may not necessarily be good for all of us.
More than a people's car (we already had one when Maruti 800 was launched in the 20th century), we a need a People's Transport Vehicle.
We need highly, fuel-efficient, light, world-class rapid bus transport systems.
We need cheap, connected computers so that we can give our students easy access to the best thinking in the world, which will ignite creative minds to come up with things that are way, way cooler than Tata's Nano.
P.S.: Mary Lou Jepsen, the Scientist who worked on the OLPC program has started her own cheap PC project, this time aiming for $75 PCs. Perhaps, this time, the Indian Government, and the Indian Media will pay attention.