India is the world’s sixth largest automobile market, and is projected to overtake South Korea and Germany to make it to the fourth spot by 2020.
It also has the distinction of having the most road accidents in the world, and the highest fatalities caused by traffic accidents. In 2012, 138,258 people died in 490,383 road accidents.
That's the highest in the world by a long shot.
While these are the official recorded figures, several estimates put that figure as being much higher. What needs to be noted is a large number of those killed are pedestrians and those riding two-wheelers or commercial vehicles.
Nonetheless, India is the only country in the top ten countries without any comprehensive safety certification mandated for automobiles – even though it has tight norms on emissions.
Global New Car Assessment Programme
In the first half of 2013, Global NCAP took the decision to focus its attention on Indian car manufacturing. NCAP is the New Car Assessment Programme - and has editions in several car markets - as the watchdog for safety and quality parameters in new vehicles.
Certification from NCAPs in the EU, USA, Latin America, Australia, and more recently China - give a car a star rating - in turn allowing manufacturers to boast higher scores to consumers.
With other emerging economies adopting these standards, India sticks out as the odd one out without this kind of globally accepted certification.
India is now a global manufacturing base for several automobile companies, which means that exported vehicles do need to meet the norms set in the destination market.
An overwhelming majority of those exports are in the small car space - which India is now seen as a hub for - since India is predominantly a small car market anyway. Nearly three-fourths of the local car sales come from hatchbacks and entry-level cars.
Global NCAP, and India's Institute of Road Traffic Education or IRTE, came together in 2013 with the intention of crash testing some of India's best-selling small cars from different manufacturers - even those which are made for India and exports.
Failing tests and global standards
The testing conducted in Germany keeps its process simple and transparent. IRTE procured two units each of the five cars selected for the test, by simply walking into the respective dealerships and buying them - just as any consumer would.
All cars bought were entry-level variants, as very often higher cost variants sometimes do add on safety features. The cars selected were the Tata Nano, Maruti Suzuki Alto800, Hyundai i10, Ford Figo and Volkswagen Polo.
These cars represent the spread of vehicles across the high-volume small car segments - from micro car to entry hatchback to premium hatchback in India.
There were two tests carried out - the UN Regulation 94 test (frontal crash at 56 kilometres/hour) and the NCAP test (frontal crash at 64km/hour). All cars failed both these tests - but for varying reasons.
The Nano, Alto800 and i10 showed different degrees of structural failure. While the cabins of the Figo and Polo held up well with better structural integrity, but missed the mark due to a lack of even a driver-side airbag as standard.
Now the Nano was always built to a price – as a basic city car, and so one could argue that it is merely an alternative to a two wheeler. But we see Nanos running at speeds much higher than 64 kilometres/hour on Indian national highways.
The Alto800 is India’s highest selling car and is once again not restricted to low speed or congested traffic alone.
The Hyundai i10 is a peculiar example since it’s made only in India for the world - and exported units of the car have received high scores in tests like the Euro NCAP. This begs the question - does the same plant manufacture the same model with two different quality parameters?
Unlike in the first 3 cars, the crash-test-dummies in the Figo and Polo sustained injuries that were far from life-threatening.
Volkswagen reacted to the test results by announcing that it will offer dual front airbags as standard on all variants of the Polo. In fact, the company sponsored its own test with Global NCAP and the car with airbags has since received a 4-star rating.
Indian road-safety factor
The reactions to the tests varied from statements that point to introspection to an adamant stance that says all cars made for the Indian market meet Indian market regulations - which questions the regulations in the first place as being inadequate and short-sighted.
Why not say - let locally sold cars meet the same parameters seen in the exported ones? Is the cost of human life so cheap in India?
Several studies - including one from IRTE suggest that the loss of lives in road deaths translates to a loss of up to 3 per cent of India’s GDP. India’s Planning Commission puts the loss at Rs 80,000 crore ($12.75bn) annually.
That alone should be an incentive for the government to get moving on formulating a stronger and tighter safety regime. Let us not forget that India is also home to the biggest manufacturer of two-wheelers, and we should also take into account safety standards and laws for bikes - and indeed commercial vehicles too.
The argument that India has different road conditions to other parts of the world, and therefore need not require safety rules that are as stringent, falls flat in the face of the over a million people killed in road accidents over the past decade.
The government's response is that it has an "Automotive Mission Plan 2020" which sets out certain targets - including safety norms - for the industry. There has been a crash and vehicle testing centre proposed for years, which is now set to be completed by the end of 2015. And so, any new safety guidelines or norms they say - can be imposed only once that happens.
With the industry reluctant to grow its own conscience, why not impose global regulations in the meantime? Why not say - let locally sold cars meet the same parameters seen in the exported ones? Is the cost of human life so cheap in India?
So it may well be down to the astute Indian consumer. Car and bike buyers in India are a shrewd bunch and absorb information quickly and readily. What we need is to ensure that tests like the ones carried out by Global NCAP are brought into the public sphere.
Since the story about the failed crash tests broke, the response has been staggering. It has been a mix of shock, surprise, anger and disgust.
Safety, not luxury, is the key
But just as reactive as people in India can be, they can also have short memories. And so this discourse needs to stay firmly in the public space.
As more people demand safer cars - or the inclusion of features like airbags as standard - the industry will simply have to comply. Today safety features are seen as luxury items - if you opt for the model with airbags, you also get a sunroof, leather seats or a cool music system. What people should want is a no-frills budget variant - which still offers safety alone as an option.
After all, Global NCAP says the cost of putting in an airbag is under Rs3,150, about $50! I do see a growing number of people who would now want just that, and that will put the right kind of pressure back on the automakers to deliver.
Unless the consumer gets vocal with this demand, it may take very long for it to actually happen.
Siddharth Vinayak Patankar is an Editor-Auto, NDTV Group and head of all automobile-based programming and was a consultant for the Global NCAP tests. He tweets @sidpatankar
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.