The Gauhati High Court has given a wake-up call to the automobile industry on safety norms, which the Government of India should have ensured throughout the country long back. But the car lobby has always exercised tremendous clout, being treated with kid gloves by successive governments at the Centre. Having brought in investment and foreign technology while creating employment opportunities in some states, automobile companies have had an easy ride so far. Now the Gauhati High Court order banning the launch and sale of small cars that do not meet global safety requirements, has made Assam set a precedent for other states. This has set alarm bells ringing for carmakers, which are now lining up top legal brains to fight unitedly under the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM). When the court takes up the matter in its next hearing, the central question for small car buyers will be — how much safety do they deserve, to what extent should they compromise with risk to life and limb? The petitioners who moved the Gauhati High Court with PILs, have contended that higher safety norms should be applicable to cars sold in Assam due to its hilly terrain. They have cited advanced crash tests like the Global New Car Assessment Programme (GNCAP), which carmakers in India oppose to be ‘practical only in developed countries’.
Cars manufactured in India are currently required to meet ‘frontal crash’ test norms. But instead of full-width frontal crash test, the US, EU and Australia nowadays go for the stricter ‘frontal offset crash’ test which is more demanding of a vehicle’s structure. In such tests, instead of the full width, only one side of the vehicle’s front end (on the driver’s side) hits a metal barrier. So a smaller part (40 to 25 per cent) of the front structure has to bear the crash energy, in which damaging intrusion into the driver’s side is more likely and can be tested. Two years ago, no Indian small car met these stricter safety norms in a series of tests in Germany by GNCAP, each car scoring a shocking ‘zero’ on the performance scale. The dummies placed on driver’s seats showed extensive injuries to the head and neck, waist and legs. The conclusion was frightening — most small cars running on Indian roads, promoted with so much glitzy advertising, are nothing but death traps on four wheels. These are structurally weak, offering little protection to the driver and other occupants. Had the Indian cars been tested further for side impact or ability to withstand rollovers on the roof, the performance would surely have descended below zero to ‘minus’ levels!
Thanks to lax automobile safety policies of the Indian government, carmakers have gotten away with the excuse that installing basic safety equipments like air bags, safety belts and better braking systems will make small cars prohibitively costly for the general Indian buyer. Buyers will have to shell out extra money for such safety features, which has created the general impression that safety is something the small car buyer must learn to live without. In June this year, the Gauhati High Court directed the Central government to make stricter frontal crash and pollution tests compulsory for all passenger and commercial vehicles with a mass of up to 1,500 kg and length of under 4 metres. With the Central government likely to enforce the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme (BNVSAP) only after two years by October 2017, carmakers are now arguing there is no real reason for this ban on sale and registration of new vehicles in Assam or elsewhere. In effect, they are claiming that their cars should be allowed on the roads for fulfilling Indian standards, even though these are far below global standards.
Transport authorities in Assam have meanwhile asked car dealers not to sell small cars which do not meet more stringent crash-test norms. As large numbers of about 140 car models and variants remain stuck in showrooms in Guwahati and other parts of the State, car dealers are complaining of huge losses just when the automobile sector was beginning to revive after two years of lean sales. With registrations of such cars stopped since 8 August last, prospective buyers here are also unhappy after having negotiated bank loans with interests already kicking in. Overall, the Northeast accounts for nearly 12 per cent of car sales, with Assam being the largest contributor. But all the moaning and groaning should not obscure the central question — considering the horrendous road conditions and accident record in Assam, should car buyers be forced to compromise with their safety? India is now the fifth largest passenger car-making country in the world, exporting a considerable number of cars to the European market. If safety features are provided in all cars exported abroad, it is high time to expect such features to be incorporated in basic car models here. The impression that life is cheap in India must go.