15/12/2014 10:09 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Indian Auto: Profit First, Safety Later

Passenger safety in cars is not a favour dished out to customers. It's the buyer's right, and auto companies will do well to keep it in mind.

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A crash test dummy's head hits the airbag in a Ford Motor Co. 2014 Explorer XLT during a head on 30 mile per hour crash test at the company's Crash Barrier Facility and Safety Laboratory at Ford's Proving Grounds in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, March 10, 2014. Ford, which recently completed it's 20,000 crash test at the Dearborn facility, is increasing its investment in computing power by fifty percent in order to conduct crash tests and retrieve data from them more quickly. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Passenger safety in cars is not a favour dished out to customers. It's the buyer's right, and auto companies will do well to keep it in mind.

It started off as a PR blunder; Maruti Suzuki India's head honcho R C Bhargava publicly advising the Indian government against serious consideration of the Global NCAP's safety test results and recommendations. During the media interview, he waxed eloquently on how NCAP recommendations, like the addition of safety features like ABS and airbags, prove detrimental in Indian conditions by increasing costs. This will result in people opting for less safer options like two wheelers instead of entry level cars. Despite being padded up with statistics, the entire lecture ended up being a sad reflection on our manufacturers' concern for customer safety.

One way of looking at this divine comedy is to consider it as Mr Bhargava's cover-up for Maruti's top sellers like the Swift and Alto 800 faring miserably in these tests. The Maruti Swift sold in India received a zero rating (yes, you read that right -- zero) in NCAP's latest frontal collision tests. Ironically, the European version of the Swift (manufactured elsewhere) received a five star crash certification!

We are talking about a car being crashed at a speed of 64 kph. Don't cars do speeds much higher than that on our roads?

Indian manufacturers are not alone in this casual attitude to safety when it comes to our country. The Datsun Go's test ratings resulted in Global NCAP requesting Nissan to pull this model off the road. Yet another example is the Hyundai i10's Indian version, which failed NCAP's early 2014 report. The i10's European version received a five star NCAP rating.

At this point, it's difficult to avoid wondering about whether Indians are subject to double standards. Add to that the fact that compliance for compliance sake is the name of the game. The standard statement to any query to Indian auto players about car safety is "We comply to all regulations applicable in India".

Great boilerplate copy!

The premise is simple. If you crash any of these cars at a speed of 56 kmph and 64 kmph, how likely are you to make it out in one piece? I highly recommend this detailed video coverage of the earlier NCAP tests by Siddharth Patankar to get a better idea.

In the couple of days following Mr Bhargava's faux pas, other Indian manufacturers started their media blitzkrieg initiatives. The figure quoted by manufacturers is a collective Rs 12,000 Crore if the government insists on inclusion of measures such as ABS, airbags and electronic stability control (ESC).

At the end of the day, manufacturers will pass on this cost to the customer. Why so much resistance? Or is it that in our country, a couple of thousand lives lost inside cars do not matter?

The reality is that Indian auto Inc is only bothered about numbers. Mr Bhargava and his ilk are business heads after all, and safety measures like beefing up of structural integrity (so that your car does not crumble up into a sheet metal ball with you inside it) and ABS/airbags/ECS will drag down the company's bottom-line.

In addition, the timing of NCAP's test results (in early 2014 as well as recently) proved inopportune for Indian auto giants. Our newly-appointed government had just announced its intentions to clamp down on the lack of safety features in automobiles using the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme (BNVSAP). If the government has its way, Maruti, Hyundai, Tata, Nissan, Honda and everyone else will have to toe the line on safety by including features such as ABS in every car.

With the walls closing in, statements such as "The person who graduates to a car from a two-wheeler is a very marginal guy, a little bit of price increase, and he will push the purchase away for the next year. We saw that when the petrol prices went up, these guys could not afford cars" are not the way forward. Instead, it just reminds us customers about the time when your company dragged its feet when it came to ensuring that brakes on the Swift work as intended.

From a customer perspective, it's fair that we the people expect industry leaders such as Maruti and Hyundai to focus less on how everyone in this country must own a car. Instead, it must be more about how everyone travelling on our roads reaches alive, and without injury -- car passengers included. This is possible only with the drafting of relevant legislation, rigid enforcement, and yes, car passenger safety. It also helps to remember that a car with sufficient structural integrity to survive a crash is not a "feature", but a necessity.