How the New India Moves: An Unexpected and Unprecedented EV Revolution is Taking India by Storm

A slew of partly open-air vehicles line the streets outside the Delhi’s metro’s Saket station. The misty mornings of early January have failed to keep commuters in their homes. As they leave the premises of the station, men standing outside of those partly open-air vehicles lure them to come and sit in their ride.

Amidst the bustling crowd of the commuters, stands Rajesh Chaudhary, a middle aged -rickshaw driver; hopeful of picking up five ‘sawaris’ so that he gets the most out of each ride. For Chaudhary and the twenty odd other e-rickshaw drivers parked outside the metro station, this is a general day. They pick up commuters exiting the station and drop them off at their destination before picking up customers from that place and dropping them back to the metro station.

Chaudhary purchased his e-rickshaw a couple of years back after having sold the cycle model which he owned for a good five years. Of all the things that this middle aged man has owned in his life, his little battery powered rickshaw remains the dearest to his heart. After purchasing the e-rickshaw, his income more than doubled, he shifted out of a dorm that was rented by ten other similar people, and he now lives with his brother. He is able to send more money to his wife and two daughters in Rajasthan.

The transformation that Chaudhary’s life has witnessed in the last two years is courtesy of one of the most common sights on Indian roads- the electric rickshaw- a three wheeled vehicle that can carry about five people. And in only a few years since the e-rickshaw became popular, a monumental 1.5 million of these battery powered whizzers have been sold across India- a fleet bigger than the number of electric passenger cars sold in China since 2011.

India is shifting gears and an electric-vehicle revolution which has nothing to do with cars is taking over the nation by storm. And unlike China, where the electric vehicle revolution was assisted by solid subsidies from the state, India’s EV-movement hardly got a helping hand. However, people like Chaudhary realised that the now ubiquitous e-rickshaw could weave through crowded areas and pan smog filled streets while being less tiring and more harmonious towards the environment. And, unlike a traditional cycle rickshaw, they required no peddling- which meant more working hours, and ultimately more earnings. So, with more number of rides becoming possible in day, the e-rickshaw segment is proving to be more lucrative.

In Asia’s third largest economy and the world’s fifth-largest automobile market, previous attempts by the state to electrify passenger transport have flopped. While there where good ideas proposed by the government, like the FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles in India) India Scheme, we hardly witnessed the results that these ideas were expected to reap. Maybe the government backtracked and didn’t make a vigorous push towards e-mobility, because that mean disrupting an industry that contributes around 7 percent to India’s total GDP. There are an estimated 1.4 million electric vehicles playing on China’s roads, and in comparison, India has less than 6,000 electric cars. China will sell that number of electric cars in a little less than three days.

So, when it is all but clear that India will be extremely slow to adapt to electric cars, e-rickshaws have caught the imagination of India’s poor and marginalised that come to big cities in search of a better life. As of today, more than 11,000 new battery powered rickshaws hit India’s roads every month. Annual sales for this segment are expected to grow by 9 percent in 2021. In fact, three-wheeled electric rickshaws have today, become a USD 1.5 billion market, and the growth has been propelled by firms like Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. and Kinetic Energy Ltd.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime, transformational opportunity that we’re looking at,’’ said Goldie Srivastava, chief executive officer and co-founder of SmartE, an Uber-style app using 800-plus e-rickshaws around New Delhi to news outlet Mint. He further added,“when we look at electric mobility, the focus should be: Are you as a government enabling products that are designed for the future?” Ola, India’s dominant ride-sharing platform is also trying to tap into the lucrative e-rickshaw market as it is planning to include 10,000 e-ricks to its service by April this year.

The rapid rise in popularity of battery powered rickshaws has opened up a new market altogether, and emerging economies should take note of that. It has helped people like Chaudhary and countless others like him to provide more to their families. “Two months ago, I called my brother from the village and gave him my old e-rickshaw so that he could drive it,’’ Chaudhary said as he waved at a potential customer that just walked by his new red rickshaw adorned by flowers and an Indian flag.

Fortunately, Indian PM Narendra Modi has also come to accept the momentousness of e-rickshaws and electric-powered public transport. In fact, the NITI Aayog is currently working on a policy that would incentivise and promote EVs in fleet transportation. Likewise, the Finance Ministry is expected to invest an estimated USD 600 million to better the infrastructure needed to support EVs on the road that includes charging stations and subsidising e-buses.

“India needs to focus on electrifying two-wheelers and three-wheelers,’’ said Amitabh Kant, chief executive of NITI Aayog to Mint.

The Challenges

We know the general problems that face the EV industry in India, and unsurprisingly, some of them are true for the e-rickshaw segment as well. One of the biggest challenges today is India’s inadequate charging infrastructure and battery swapping points. By the end of 2017, India has about 430 installed EV chargers- a meagre number. While the government has said that the active charging points would increase to 2,800 charging points by 2022, it remains to be seen if we see any commitment coming from the government, especially as we enter a general election year.

Apart from that, another major hindranceis the lack of financial support from banks to the buyers of these battery-powered rickshaws. The demography that buys these vehicles is often hard-strapped for cash, and times like this, in which they don’t get ample financial support from banks,can prove quite daunting for them.

Silver Linings

India’s unexpected e-mobility revolution is surely a welcome moment for all of us. It has created a massive market that many people didn’t foresee a few years back and has also opened up new employment opportunities for India’s underprivileged. These e-rickshaws running on Indian roads also means that we are affecting the environment a little less.

For people like Chaudhary, and several others of his ilk, these e-rickshaws have been a second coming of sorts. It has provided them with fresh energy, and they can now earn much more money than they ever used to. This unexpected EV revolution comes as a fresh breeze of air for a large portion of India’s populous, is kind towards the environment, and gives us Indians another reason to smile at our much talked about adaptability.

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