Why Uber/Ola is Nehruvian

According to Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, the ostensible reason for India adopting a statist/socialist/planned approach was the scarcity of capital.

With capital being scarce in the newly independent country, Jawaharlal Nehru had reasoned that in order for the country to develop, whatever capital existed had to be deployed in the most productive manner possible. A free market for capital would end up deploying capital where it wasn’t required the most, denying more critical sectors of capital. A planned economy, on the other hand, would result in more efficient usage of capital.

While India has developed significantly in the 70 years since independence, it is still not completely out of the woods. Poverty remains high and India’s per capita income is at the lower end of the spectrum. Thus, while capital may not be as scarce a resource as it was in 1950, effective deployment of capital is still necessary to ensure India’s continued economic growth.

From this perspective, think of the car. When at rest, it is adding no economic value apart from making itself available to its owner (and its owner alone) at a point of time when the latter needs it. From this perspective, the economic value that the parked car adds is almost entirely in terms of “option value”.

A parked car also consumes valuable economic resources, with the most important being the real estate it stands on. This particular resource is so important that it forms an important form of urban regulation in most markets (a building or a business needs to have a certain minimum number of parking spaces and so on).

Moreover, the two common axes on which the value of a car is evaluated are age and distance travelled. Considering that the car adds economic value only in terms of the latter – when it helps transport someone, depreciation of the car in terms of age is entirely uncompensated. On this account, too, a parked car is a dead weight loss.

It is not hard to see, thus, that a parked car is an enormous waste of capital; capital that an emerging economy such as India could very well utilise elsewhere. Yet, the large number of cars in the country that are standing still at any point in time show that despite being an overall inefficient use of capital, a large number of people value the inbuilt option value.

Back in the time when Nehru had his way, he had solved the problem in his own unique way – by limiting the number of cars that could be manufactured and sold in the country, which automatically put a limit on the number of parked cars. In this technologically advanced day and age, however, we don’t need such drastic measures.

All we need is a restructuring of economic incentives such that the option value of a parked car goes down. And what better incentive than to provide the option to summon a car on demand? While this summoned car might have a higher marginal cost per trip than an owned car, taken in aggregate it leads to a significantly lower cost.

Thus, the Nehruvian answer to the inefficient capital wasted in parked cars would be to encourage services that allow you to summon a car on demand. In other words, services such as Uber and Ola fulfil a Nehruvian objective by freeing up capital that was being earlier wasted in parked cars. There is data to show that such services have resulted in a decline in growth of car ownership.

Given that Uber and Ola follow the Nehruvian ideal of reducing wasteful capital, it is baffling that the government in Karnataka, which belongs to the Congress party which is based on Nehruvian ideals, or the government in Delhi, headed by the Nehruvian Arvind Kejriwal, were to campaign to clamp down on such Nehruvian services.

There might be some tremors under Shanti Van.