In many cities across north and east India, it is not uncommon to come across hardy young men, pulling rickshaws and earning their livelihood by taking passengers through narrow lanes to crowded markets, bus stands and housing colonies.
Thousands of these muscular men work round-the-year during the searing summer months, biting winter days and nights and even the rainy season but earn a pittance for their labour.
In the larger cities, the manual vehicles have gradually been replaced by cycle-rickshaws, where the amount of effort in pulling passengers is much less. Increasingly, over the past few years, tens of thousands of e-rickshaws (or electric-rickshaws) began appearing in some northern cities including Delhi. These are basic three-wheeler vehicles fitted with batteries, but the low fares and relatively faster speeds which have made them popular.
According to the government, there are more than 200,000 e-rickshaws in operation all over the country, but mainly in the north.
Many small companies began importing the vehicles from China. But Indian authorities, both central and state, turned a blind eye to the proliferating e-rickshaws over the past few years; surprisingly, there are no regulations governing their movement.
Many of the operators began to over-load the vehicles carrying six to eight passengers. And since the vehicles were motorised, they rode right in the middle of busy roads, endangering the lives of passengers. Delhis bus drivers are notorious for their negligent driving, so accidents began piling up.
In July, the Delhi high court responded to a public interest litigation and imposed a ban on e-rickshaws in the national capital, pointing out they are a hazard to passengers and other vehicle users. A high court bench reiterated the judgement and asked the central government to come out with the necessary rules governing their operations.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways finally came out with a notification relating to e-rickshaws, defined as special-purpose, battery-operated vehicles having three wheels and intended to provide last-mile connectivity for passengers. Such vehicles cannot carry more than four passengers (including the driver) and not more than 40kg of luggage. The maximum speed for e-rickshaws has also been kept at 25km per hour and the vehicles are to be operated by licenced drivers. The licences will be valid for three years and the vehicles too will be inspected regularly by the road transport authorities.
Nitin Gadkari, the union road transport minister, has been opposed to the court ban, claiming that the move had rendered thousands of poor people jobless. E-rickshaws were also providing inexpensive transportation to hundreds of thousands of commuters, he claims.
In July, Gadkari had controversially declared that e-rickshaws would be exempt from the provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act, which could have led to disastrous road conditions in Indian cities. Opposition parties including the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party accused Gadkari of promoting e-rickshaws as it would benefit a close relative of his who is a manufacturer of such vehicles in Nagpur.
While the minister has been promoting the use of e-rickshaws in his native Nagpur, he denied any special interests to favour the vehicle manufacturer. However, after the Delhi high court ban, the government was forced to review its move to exempt these vehicles from the provisions of the act.
While electric, hybrid and other green vehicles are gaining popularity around the globe governments in India both at the centre and the state have neglected the segment for years. In January 2013, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had unveiled a National Electric Mobility mission plan 2020, promising to subsidise the purchase of electric vehicles. However, as with many of the ambitious plans that were launched by the then government, it failed to take-off.
The new BJP government is now trying to revive this plan and envisages providing incentives of about Rs140bn to promote electric vehicles. The plan expects about 7m electric vehicles to be on the roads by 2020, resulting in savings of nearly 2.5m tonnes of fuel and a 1.5pc reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
Chetan Maini, a Bangalore-based entrepreneur, had launched the Reva, an electric car, in a joint venture with an American firm, about 15 years ago. In 2004, Maini began exporting the vehicle to Europe and other countries. About 4,000 electric vehicles were exported by the company over the following years.
In 2010, Indias leading domestic automaker, Mahindra & Mahindra, acquired a majority stake in Reva. Mahindra Reva introduced the e2o, its electric vehicle last year, but sales have not been up to expectations because of the slowdown in the auto sector and because of the depreciation of the Indian rupee, which has led to a hike in the price of the vehicle, which still uses a lot of imported components.
Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, a leading car maker, is also planning to launch hybrids in India, which could push fuel efficiency beyond 25km per litre of petrol. Though hybrid cars would be slightly more expensive, in the long-run it is cheaper to operate. Mahindra & Mahindra is also working on a hybrid version of its utility vehicle.
Several other automakers are also working on electric scooters and other battery-operated vehicles. In fact, civic bodies are also being pressurised to set up charging stations to ensure that the thousands of electric vehicles that will be buzzing around on city roads will have adequate power.
Electric vehicle manufacturers, power utilities and government agencies are engaged in discussions on the setting up of such charging stations. With the organised players showing a keen interest in electric vehicles, many of the small-time operators have been forced to shut shop.
In August, a delegation from the Chinese electric vehicle manufacturing industry visited Ahmedabad in Gujarat, exploring investment opportunities. This was before the recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Ahmedabad and Delhi. The Chinese companies are planning to invest about $100m to set up an industrial park at Sanand, the automobile hub near Ahmedabad, to produce electric vehicles.
According to Jagat Shah, secretary-general, China-India Trade and Investment Centre, the Chinese entrepreneurs were keen to set up operations in the state. If the plans materialise, he notes, police vehicles, buses, ambulances and utility vehicles in India could soon be converted into electric vehicles.
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