If you are new to the Indian car industry, locating the offices of the Society of Indian Automotive Manufacturers (SIAM) is no easy task. Sure, the red brick, majestic building of the India Habitat Centre on Lodhi Road in New Delhi is easy enough to locate. But once inside, it is easy to become lost in its sheer size and numerous 'Cores'. Eventually, a good Samaritan may tell you that SIAM is located in Core IV B, right next to a famous food court, write Deepesh Rathore and Tilak Swarup.

But walking up to Core IV B leads to further confusion, as one does not find any SIAM listed although there is something called the Association of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM). Common sense comes into play and one realises that this has to be the office of SIAM. So this is how a new visitor often reaches the offices of the apex body of the Indian automobile industry. SIAM, till a few years back, was known as AIAM - the name changed, but the plaque on the ground floor of the India Habitat Centre is still proud to display the old name.

And the fact that the plaque is still unchanged perhaps serves as a suitable metaphor for the present situation of the Indian automotive industry. Change is slow, often frustratingly so. There are people who want change, changes are initiated, but for the changes to reach the grass roots level through implementation is an altogether different story. Often, steps taken in the right direction fail to touch the ground due to bureaucratic sluggishness and this is precisely the reason that, when Dilip Chenoy, the new Director General of SIAM told us that the 'Society' is working towards computerisation of Regional Transport Offices (RTOs), we were not wholly convinced.

Sales data changes planned
It's a good idea and anyone analysing the Indian market will certainly welcome the data that this exercise will liberate, but, like all good ideas, this one is prone to being bogged down by typical bureaucratic indolence, despite the fact that the head of Maruti Udyog and the Chairman of SIAM, Jagdish Khattar, is taking a personal interest in the matter.

Essentially, the computerisation of RTOs will mean that the vehicle registration data being accumulated at each centre over many years can be converted into digital format and then can be collated easily at one centre. This would put Indian passenger vehicle registration data - a much more accurate measure of car sales - into the public domain in more usable format. Until now, SIAM has been collecting segment-wise sales data (based on billing to the dealers and not the actual retail sales) from manufacturers every month.

Data manipulation by manufacturers has been a problem
While the data is broadly correct over a longer period of time (say over a couple of years) and will illustrate most of the trends correctively, it can be easily manipulated and tampered with to give a false impression over a shorter time-frame, say, spread over a quarter. This manipulation of data is very common in the Indian market where customer preference is often driven on perceived popularity. It is common to find sales slumping by as much as 80-percent after the festival season (typically Oct-Dec every year) is over. Clearly, sales departments bill their dealers excessively during the festival period to show better sales. Often, allegations have been traded between manufacturers, accusing each other of tampering with data.

Also, with the old system, there is no available official sales data by model though a number of companies do collate this data. It is entirely up to manufacturers to provide this data to selected individuals or companies and the veracity of the data is always questionable as it is easy to manipulate figures when a company has two or more products in the same segment. All these anomalies can be taken care of once all the RTOs are computerised and their data collated in a central database.

But, with thousands of RTOs spread over the country, the task is easier said than done. Add to that the typical Indian bureaucratic hurdles, and the time needed for building a 'consensus' may stretch over five years.

Four point agenda for SIAM
This is not the only challenge that awaits Dilip Chenoy in his new role as the DG of SIAM. There is the older four point agenda of technology, safety, environment and trade. Each of these has acquired bigger importance over the last two years as the Indian passenger car market has started showing a certain degree of maturity. The fiscal year just passed saw Indian passenger car production cross the one million mark for the first time - domestic sales still hover around 800,000 with the remainder made up by export numbers. It may be difficult to match last year's 27-percent growth rate this fiscal year, but the economy remains encouragingly buoyant. SIAM and the industry generally don't envisage a growth rate beyond 15-percent. But more than the numbers, it is the coming to age of the Indian industry that is important.

The high export numbers are majorly accounted by four models - the Suzuki Alto manufactured in India by Maruti, the Hyundai Atos manufactured in India as the Santro Xing, the CityRover made in India by Tata Motors and the Ford Ikon (three box Fiesta) whose body shell is exported by Ford India to Mexico. And all these models are also sold in India. The Indian car industry clearly has caught up with international standards of production quality. Alongside that, the Indian passenger car market has also seen model introductions in line with the global makers' international line-ups. That said, the best selling model still continues to be the Maruti 800, which started life two decades back.

In India's maturing market, the role of the Society of Indian Automotive Manufacturers (SIAM) has become more demanding and it requires the body to be enterprising - something that a first meeting with Dilip Chenoy assures us of. The new DG of SIAM has many bright ideas and he comes across as a well-meaning guy with years of experience in working with similar bodies like the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII). But, not all is as easy as it looks.

SIAM may be the apex body of the Indian automobile industry but it is just a 'society', it can only suggest changes, it cannot bring about regulations and enforce changes. And 'suggestions' in India, with a population of one billion plus, are something that one gets aplenty. It is entirely up to the industry to follow the suggestions and 'building a consensus' seems to be the keywords here. It is easier said than done and matters may take months, stretching into years, to be resolved - as the recent past has shown us in the case of framing of Quadricycle regulations. The development programmes of TVS, Piaggio and some other companies interested in Quadricycles have been incomplete in the absence of regulations to guide the shape of Quadricycles in India. And going by general industry attitude, a consensus on norms is still far away.

On the four fronts that SIAM listed as its action areas, the results have been mixed. The first one - technology - is a buzzword for the industry though it is not high-end technologies like fuel cells and CVTs that SIAM sees as a priority. Alternative fuels sit high in SIAM's list of important tasks. However, the only electric car to come out of India - Reva, also sold in UK as the G-Wiz - received very little industry and government encouragement and support.

The second priority is the alignment of Indian safety norms with international ones. While, a car like the Skoda Octavia, being sold in India, can be equated to the European Octavia on active safety parameters, the same cannot be done for older (and very popular) models like the best selling Maruti 800 still being made in India. The country still doesn't have any crash test norms in place and any model adhering to a particular safety standard is purely on a voluntary basis. Making a consensus on safety norms is again going to be difficult as many players have successful models - more than a decade old - on the roads (model lifecycles in India are unusually long) and they are likely to oppose the implementation of any safety norms equivalent to European standards. An intervention by the judiciary seems to be the only way forward on this issue.

The third frontier for SIAM is the issue of environment. Actually, the Society has met with its greatest success on environmental issues. India now has a proper time frame in place for the implementation of emission standards. These emission standards - named Bharat emission standards - are based on Euro standards and Indian metropolitan cities are already adhering to Euro II standards which will be upgraded in the future to Euro III and Euro IV. There is a time frame for commercial vehicles too. However, often such norms fail to deliver thanks to spurious fuel being sold in the rural areas of the country. SIAM feels that this is a major issue to address.

Another aspect on the environment front, and also linked to technological aspects, is that of limited test facilities. There is only one test and certification facility at ARAI, Pune (though VRDE, Ahmednagar can be used for testing) in West India and it is not very practical for manufacturers in the South (in the automotive belt of Bangalore-Chennai) and in the North (in the automotive pocket of Delhi-Gurgaon-Faridabad). Two new testing facilities have been proposed though locations have not yet been finalised. A large amount of land is needed for a testing facility and it is the procurement of such land that is a problem. While the Madhya Pradesh government has offered land in Pithampur near Indore, it remains to be seen whether the site can meet the industry demands, as Indore is located in Central India.

The fourth frontier for SIAM is that of trade. The society wants full regulations in place in order to develop India as a small car-manufacturing hub. The SIAM is working with the Ministry of Heavy Industries on FTAs with Thailand and ASEAN countries.

Consumer rights?
However, there are other issues that SIAM has not yet touched upon. One of them is the issue of consumer rights. Unlike the NHTSA in US, there is no apex body in India that looks into consumer issues on quality, safety and other aspects. So while there have been cases of generic problems cropping up in particular models (for example, customers of a popular B-segment hatchback manufactured between September 1998 and July 2001 have reported problems with its reverse lamps), there have not been many car recalls. And those recalls which have occurred have been poorly publicised, so response has been poor. Chenoy attaches the problem to a lack of computerised registration data that makes it nearly impossible for companies to contact the end user. One however feels that a recall can be advertised in the leading national dailies (like any public notice) to ensure that customers read it.

There are many changes that needed to bring the Indian industry and regulations up to international standards and SIAM will certainly have its hands full for the foreseeable future. While Dilip Chenoy comes across as an enthusiastic and enterprising person, he often reminds one of the President of India. Good intentions, but very little by way of executive powers.

Deepesh Rathore / Tilak Swarup