Monday, 29 February 2016

Campaigning for safer cars for India

Consumer organisations are campaigning for better car safety in India. A participatory strategy development workshop was held in Chennai in February. Swathy Satyamurti, Director of Projects at the Consumers Association of India, reflects on what was achieved.

Why is it that cars manufactured in India don’t have basic safety features like airbags fitted in them? But the same car if manufactured in Europe has it? Is the life of a person living in India any less valuable? Given India’s claim to fame, of having one of the highest number of road fatalities in the world, how can auto manufacturers continue to sell less safe cars in our market? Conveniently, the Indian auto industry found a loophole to circumvent demands for better basic safety features – which is, they are adhering to the safety measures laid down by the Indian Government. 

In 2014, the Global New Car Assessment Programme (GNCAP) focused on the Indian market and tested five popular cars sold in India for crash worthiness. Seeing the most popular small cars (Tata Nano, Maruti Alto, VW Polo, Hyundai i10 and Ford Figo) get Zero star rating and miserably fail safety tests was a clear wakeup call to the Indian Government. Soon thereafter, plans for stringent test regulations as well as India’s own NCAP called Bharath New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme (BNVSAP) were announced late last year.

Now, let’s be clear - India has no dearth of laws, the problem is lack of implementation. So, while I was happy to note the announcement of BNVSAP, there was very little information available in the public domain about its organisational structure, committee members, crash testing facility, guidelines, timelines etc. Also, very little information was available about the implementation of the revised regulations.

Given this background, it was very timely of Consumers International (CI) to call for a focused car safety campaign strategy building workshop in India with five CI Member organisations (Consumer Advocacy Group (CAG), Consumer Association of India (CAI), Consumer Education Research Society (CERC), Consumer Unity & Trust CUTS and Voice Society) that were identified to be actively working on car/road safety. I was most happy to note the venue for the meeting was my home town, Chennai.

Day 1: Tuesday, February 9th 

The day started with two external presenters who were there to give us an overview about Quadricycles and talk about the current cases pending in the Supreme Court. I got so much technical and legal information about Quadricycles from that session that my head is still reeling from it. Let me try to highlight key points in simple words:
  • Bajaj, a leading auto manufacturer in India has announced the launch of a four wheeler called Qute. Although to most people it looks like a small car, as a ‘Quadricycle’, the Qute is being treated as a different category of vehicle, and therefore is not subject to the same safety requirements as cars;  
  • According to Rahul Bajaj, the company’s Managing Director “It provides a very logical upgrade from a three-wheeler for people who want to pay a little more and want to have the comfort and safety of four wheels, four doors, a roof and seatbelts";
  • However, the quadricycle has received lot of flak and criticism from other auto manufacturers and many experts saying that it is not environmentally friendly and lacks safety standards;
  • In fact the definition/classification of the quadricycle has become a legal tangle with multiple petitions in various high courts and now in the Supreme Court questioning the Central Government’s process for creating a new vehicle segment;
  • The Qute is therefore now available only for export markets (to Turkey, Russia, Africa, etc.) as the regulations for India are not yet in place and there is a public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court against its launch.
Workshop participants including: Mr. Madhu Sudan Sharma (CUTS), Saroja Sundaram (CAG), Swathy Satyamurti (CAI), Rinki Sharma (VOICE Society), Uday Mawani (CERS) and CI's Indrani Thuraisingham, Joe Weber and Tom McGrath.

Joe Weber, CI’s Advocacy Development Advisor then briefed us about CI’s work on car safety campaigning. We discussed why car safety is a very important issue for India – not simply because India is one of the top five car markets in the world, but also because it is the only one in that list without an effective car safety programme or stringent regulations in place.

The post lunch session was spent resource mapping and identifying the unique selling point that each of the five participating Member organisations have. Indrani, Thuraisingham, Head CI’s Office for Asia Pacific, in her usual flamboyant style made sure there was full transparency and disclosure of all the committee membership we currently hold and the extent of our outreach capabilities, to our vco/cso connections, social media activity levels, etc.

Day 2: Wednesday, February 10th - Visit to GARC

One of the largest vehicle testing facilities in India - the Global Automotive Research Centre (GARC) - is located right here in Chennai and so on Day 2 of the workshop all of us made the two and a half hour trip to visit the facility. Mr. Hariharan, Engineer and his team gave us a detailed presentation about:
  • BNVSAP management structure, test guidelines, timeline for implementation, etc;
  • CMVR (Central Motor Vehicle Regulations) revisions - Government of India has amended the regulations to mandate frontal, side impact and passenger safety tests for all new vehicles by October 2017;
  • GARC readiness - expected to be fully operational by October 2016.

In the discussions that followed, it was interesting to note Mr. Hariharan saying that: “.. the safer the car is, the rasher the driver will drive”. Hence the Indian Government does not want to make cars very safe by mandating all crash tests right away. Instead, it will be done in a phased manner. This to me sounded more like a ploy to delay implementation of tests. It is therefore imperative that consumer organisations work together to put pressure on both the policy makers and the auto manufacturers.

After treating us to a good meal in their cafeteria, the team took us around their 300 acre facility and gave us a look into the testing tracks and the labs (of course strictly with no photographs in some labs to maintain confidentiality). It was a day well spent and we came back to the hotel overloaded with information.

Workshop participants including: Mr. Madhu Sudan Sharma (CUTS), Saroja Sundaram (CAG), Swathy Satyamurti (CAI), Rinki Sharma (VOICE Society), Uday Mawani (CERS) and CI's Indrani Thuraisingham.

Day 3: Strategy building with timelines

Considering that it was just two days in, most of us didn’t know much about Quadricycles, pending PIL’s, revised regulations or about BNVSAP - it was impressive to note how much we had learnt in these two days. So, on Day 3, all five of us along with CI's Joe Weber and Tom McGrath collectively put on our thinking caps and listed down each campaign strategy and discussed various possible activities. In the end, we built a specific game plan of action for each strategy.

A strategy to approach policy makers to request inclusion of consumer organisations into the BNVSAP committee/Board was discussed and agreed. It was also agreed that we need to put pressure on auto manufacturers to adopt safety measures in line with UNECE guidelines.

Lest we slack off, Indrani was sure to document all the action steps to be taken by each participating organisation and the timeline to adhere to.  

We knew a lot of work would be needed post-workshop but we ended our three days feeling good with what we had accomplished in such a short period of time. Indeed, three days well spent.

Follow our campaign progress on #nozerostarcars and the CI campaign pages. 


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