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The much-hyped and much-criticized Tata Nano, a car that will hit the Indian market retailing for a mere 100,000 rupees -- the equivalent of $2,500 -- got a perplexing nod of approval from the Economist newsmagazine last week:

Commuting in India's cities can be both cosy and deadly. Children squeeze snugly between father at the handlebars of a motorcycle, and mother riding side-saddle at the back. This precarious balancing act, says Mr Tata was the "visual target" he had in mind when he first conceived of the need "to create another form of transport." About 1,800 people die on Delhi's roads each year, perhaps one-third of them on two-wheelers. Only 5% die in cars. Tata's project may pose risks for investors, but it promises unaccustomed safety for customers.

While we don't have all the data needed to crunch the assumptions in that road-death statistic (what percentage are traveling in cars to begin with, for instance?), it's hard to imagine that an influx of Tata Nanos is going to magically bring order to the streets of India. A New York Times article discussing chaotic driving habits in the country's capital quotes a police official in New Delhi on his views:

"My concern is not with cars. My concern is with drivers," said Suvashish Choudhary, the deputy commissioner of police. "Every new car will bring new drivers who are not trained for good city driving."

In China, the other huge new market targeted by auto manufacturers, recently released statistics suggest his concern is well-placed. Road deaths there are on the rise, even as they decline in other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, protesters on the site of the factory that will manufacture the new car torched the Nano in effigy (above) in protest over the company's seizure of farmland to make way for the plant: "Until farmers get back their land forcibly acquired for the Tata Motors small car plant at Singur," said one organizer, according to the Economic Times of India, "we will not allow the company to manufacture cars there."

Photo: Strdel/AFP/Getty Images

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