Nano Production Hits A Pothole In West Bengal

The Nano, billed as the world's cheapest car, was supposed to roll off an Indian production line this month. But that plan hit a snag when Tata Motors announced it had to build the car somewhere else. The company closed the new plant in the state of West Bengal after violent protests.

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What's billed as the world's cheapest car has hit a pothole. The Nano was supposed to roll off production lines in India this month and go on the market for a little over $2,000. It was described as the Model T of India, but now the carmaker Tata is looking for somewhere else to build the car. The company closed a new plant in the state of West Bengal following violent protests, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

RATAN TATA: Now, I give you the new car from Tata Motors, the people's car that everyone has been waiting for.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

PHILIP REEVES: It's 10 months since Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, happily unveiled his tiny new car to the world. Much has changed since then. A few days ago, he appeared before the TV cameras again, in a different mood.

TATA: Accusations and allegations have been made, and we believe that we have been caught in a political crossfire.

REEVES: Tata's closing its giant new factory in West Bengal, he said. That factory was set up to build the Nano. It's out of action even before it's produced its first car. Here's the problem. The factory is on land that Tata leases from the state government at Singur, a few dozen miles outside the city of Calcutta. West Bengal was always eager to attract the highly prestigious Tata, India's largest vehicle maker. The communist-run state government acquired the land from farmers. The farmers had no choice but to sell their land under a law that defined the Nano project to be in the public interest.

GUTRIN DAS: Although the state paid a higher than market price for this land, many farmers did not agree because it is a rich agricultural area.

REEVES: That's Gutrin Das, an industrialist turned author.

DAS: And when the farmers did not agree, then the communist government actually let loose the police on these people, and there was violence.

MAMATA BANERJEE: (Bengali spoken)

REEVES: This is the person Tata blames. Mamata Banerjee, a firebrand populist politician who heads a regional party in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress. Banerjee and her party cadres weighed in on the side of farmers. There were mass protests and attacks on the factory. Gutrin Das again.

DAS: Her agitation also became violent. And the Tatas, fearing for the safety of their workers, decided to abandon Singur. Five states are now throwing the red carpet at the Tatas, saying, come, come. Whatever you want, we'll give you. Come and put up this great factory.

REEVES: While Tata decides what to do next, other carmakers are circling. Bajaj, in partnership with Renault, is working on a low-cost, small car. And in India's capital, New Delhi, a car that's even smaller than the Nano has appeared on the streets.

CHANDRAMOULI: As you can see, it is probably six feet in length and four - three and a half, four feet width.

REEVES: R. Chandramouli is an executive with Reva, makers of a city runaround electric car. The Reva costs more than Nano, the equivalent of just over $6,000. However, you don't have to spend a fortune on gas. Analysts say the Reva's always going to have a much smaller slice of the pie than the mass-produced Nano. That doesn't deter Chandramouli from trying to win around potential customers, even if this means a test drive through Delhi's streets, amid the kamikaze buses, speeding SUVs, cycle rickshaws, and stray cattle.

REEVES: Now you need to be a bit pushy, don't you, to drive here?

CHANDRAMOULI: In Delhi, yes.

REEVES: Do you find a lot people look at you when you're driving around in one of these?

CHANDRAMOULI: Absolutely. In fact, it becomes like a visiting car.

REEVES: Like a visiting car?

CHANDRAMOULI: Everybody waves at you.

REEVES: Happily, I see.

CHANDRAMOULI: Happily. There's a smile on their face.

REEVES: It'll be a while before the smiles return to the faces of the pioneers of the Nano. Tata's now deciding where to relocate its new factory, and the world's waiting to see if Tata now really can make the planet's cheapest car. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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