With low private car ownership, the world’s second-most populous country is adopting a shared mobility model to tackle some of the worst air pollution in the world, writes Terry Slavin

Compare the electrification of transport in the world’s most populous two countries and the difference could not be more stark. More electric cars are sold in China, the world’s undisputed EV leader, in two days than have been sold in India in the past six years, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

This despite the Indian government saying in 2017 that all new vehicles will be electric by 2030, as part of the country’s efforts to reduce dependence on imported oil and clean up the air in its congested cities, which suffer some of the worst air pollution in the world. According to The Lancet, 1.7 million Indians died prematurely from noxious air in 2017, shaving 1.7 years off of average life-expectancy.

Pollution in Delhi recently spiked to 10 times safe levels, prompting the city to declare a public health emergency and drastically restrict private vehicles on the roads, though the primary cause was thought to be agricultural burning in neighbouring states. And the air pollution situation will only get worse, with India’s urban population projected to nearly double in the next decade. 

Unlike elsewhere, the prime targets for India’s EV policy are not cars. Car ownership, though rising, is among the lowest in the world, at 22 motor vehicles per 1,000 people in 2015, compared with 179 in China, 543 in the European Union and 811 in the US, according to the International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers.

The overall message is loud and clear that India is very serious about vehicle electrification

Two-wheelers, which can navigate standstill traffic in India’s congested cities, are kings of the road, accounting for over 70% of vehicles, while three-wheel auto-rickshaws are ubiquitous.

At a high-level session on the electrification of transport in India at Climate Week New York it was clear that while an EV market for private cars is still some way off, in public transport and shared vehicles such as buses, taxis, motorcycles and rickshaws, electrification is already under way.

Anup Bandivadekar, programme director for the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), told the session, convened by the multi-stakeholder Electric Mobility Initiative for India, that there has been a surge in startups investing in vehicles, batteries and charging infrastructure in the last 18 months.

They have been lured by a plethora of generous federal incentives and tax breaks, along with additional help from 10 Indian states, and cities like Delhi, which has set a target for 25% of new vehicle registrations to be electric by 2023.

1.7 million Indians died prematurely from noxious air in 2017.(Credit: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

“There’s so many startups it’s hard for us to keep track, from two-wheelers to different business models," Bandivadekar said. "The overall message is loud and clear that India is very serious about vehicle electrification, but where it could do better is in setting concrete targets, either targeting manufacturers [by] saying they need to have a percentage of sales to be EV” by a certain date, or by giving commercial fleet owners or ride-hailing firms like Uber and Ola a deadline to electrify their fleets, he added.

According to a Reuters report in June, NITI Aayog, an influential thinktank chaired by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has recommended that the government set targets for taxi aggregators to convert 40% of their fleet of cars to electric by April 2026. It also recommends a target for all new cars sold for commercial purposes to be electric from April 2026.

However, Bandivadekar told Ethical Corporation he understood such regulatory targets were not being actively discussed by the government. “So, while it serves to highlight the ambition level of some in the government, I would not cite it as an indication of where the national policy is headed.”

There's a risk of slipping on commitments like having 5,600 EV buses deployed by December 2020

Bandivadekar said regulations matter “because mainstream manufacturers haven’t stepped up with [electric] model offerings … And without regulatory targets those will be slow to come, so that’s where we need to focus.”

Clay Stranger of the Rocky Mountain Institute, which has been working on electric mobility in Indian cities for the past four years, said there are numerous state and city-level targets for electrification that build on the central government's FAME II EV policy, announced earlier this year.

The priority should be to deliver on the existing commitments, he said. “There’s a risk of slipping on commitments like having 5,600 [EV] buses deployed by December 2020. … [To deliver on that] would require producing 15 buses per day, starting last week. … Production is an issue, but if that isn’t a demand signal I don’t know what is. We are really hoping that industry will step in.”

Gridlock is a common occurrence in India's congested cities. (Credit; travelwild/Shutterstock)

Stranger said electric delivery in cities is ready to go, with 30 companies having joined RMI in a pilot called "Deliver Electric Delhi."

The pilot aims to deploy 1,000 electric delivery vehicles on the road by 2020, and to collect data on their performance in order to further make the case for the electrification of final mile delivery. Announced participants include Amazon and its Indian competitor Flipkart, which has said it is shifting 40% of its last-mile fleet to electric by as soon as next year.

In addition, Indian signatories to The Climate Group’s EV100 group have pledged to electrify their fleets in India by 2030. They include IT company Wipro, the State Bank of India, New Delhi-based utility BSES Yamuna Power, BSES Rajdhani Power, ride-sharing company Shuttl, and Bangalore-based scooter rental company Bounce. EV100 founding company IKEA, which opened a large-format store in Hyderabad last year, has a delivery fleet of electric rickshaws powered by solar panels from the store’s roof.

In Delhi, Stranger said, “the economics work now. They will work even better when the draft Delhi EV policy is implemented.”

Without indigenous battery production there is concern that India will be reliant on battery imports from China

Anand Shah is co founder of Ola Electric Mobility (OEM), the electric mobility arm of Bengalaru-based Ola, one of the world’s largest ride-hailing companies, with 150 million users in 150 cities around the world.

OEM spun out of the parent company on the back of an EV project in Nagpur, in the state of Maharashtra, to build charging infrastructure, and bring 200 electric vehicles, from cars to two-wheelers and auto-rickshaws, on to its app.

Now one of the largest deployers of electric vehicles in India, Shah said OEM has delivered 20 million electric kilometres so far, and has an ambitious target to get one million EV vehicles on the road by 2021. But he said the focus is on the two- and three-wheel markets.

Electrification in India hasn’t been driven by the middle classes, he said, but by the likes of the auto-rickshaw drivers in northern India, who are making money running their lead-acid battery vehicles on consumer demand alone.

OEM’s model is to convince e-rickshaw drivers to abandon lead-acid batteries, which are heavy, deteriorate quickly, and take many hours to charge, and instead install lithium-ion batteries, which when out of charge can be swapped out for a fresh one at Ola’s charging stations.

But he added that “to win, India will need to be able to make batteries.” Without indigenous battery production there is concern that India will be reliant on battery imports from China, which is a key global supplier of raw materials like lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese.

Another big barrier to India’s electric dreams is lack of charging infrastructure, with some 500 publicly available chargers in all of India, compared with 50,000 in the city of Beijing alone.

Anirban Ghosh is chief sustainability officer for India’s Mahindra Group, which is one of the few carmakers, with Tata, producing EV passenger cars. He argues that supply constraints to electric mobility can be overcome in the longer term if there are sufficient demand-side incentives in the short term.

We are observing a transformation in mobility… The question is not whether we will do it, but if we will do it well

Ghosh told the Climate Week New York session that although demand for EV passenger cars is “trundling along now, it will shoot through the roof at some point in the not distant future”.

Almost all the major car manufacturers are planning to launch an electric model in India next year, Ghosh said. “We are observing a transformation in mobility… The question is not whether we will do it, but if we will do it well.”

A report on electric mobility in India co-authored by RMI and Indian business organisation FICCI in 2017 suggested that if India could “leapfrog the western mobility paradigm of private-vehicle ownership and create a shared, electric, and connected mobility system” it could save 876 million metric tons of oil equivalent and 1 giga-tonne of carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030.

Bandivadekar of ICCT said the prize is worth having for India, and for the planet. “If we pulled out all the stops on efficiency and electrification we could see oil demand peak within a decade’s time. That’s pretty amazing for an economy that is going to continue to grow … but that’s the potential we see.”

Turning cycle rickshaw drivers into e-entrepreneurs in Uttar Pradesh

SMV Green is a social enterprise that operates in two of India’s most populous states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and is helping poor people to buy and operate electric auto-rickshaws.

Winner of this year’s Ashden Award for international sustainable mobility, SMV has created a one-stop shop for drivers that offers low-interest finance, vehicle supply, licensing and permits, money management training, road safety training, and after-sales service. Drivers pay a 10% deposit on the e-rickshaw, and the balance over 24 to 30 months.

Since batteries are the most expensive capital cost, drivers are also given the choice of either lithium or cheaper lead-acid batteries, with drivers of the former able to swap their depleted batteries for freshly charged ones through SMV’s battery-swapping service, and keep their vehicles on the road.

We have observed 60-150% increase in income of manual rickshaw drivers moving to e-rickshaw

Many of the drivers of the 1,140 e-rickshaws sold so far previously drove cycle rickshaws, and have seen their incomes doubled, Ashden said. Deepak Goel, regional director of Shell Foundation in India, said the impact on SMV’s e-rickshaw owners had been profound.

“We have observed 60-150% increase in income of manual rickshaw drivers moving to e-rickshaw, and we have noticed significant improvement in lives of family … They are able to send their kids to school and afford three meals a day.”

SMV Green also has a special all-female team with a mission to recruit women as owner-drivers. Not only does it mean women from poor, socially conservative communities, who would never have been allowed to drive a cycle rickshaw, can earn a decent wage, female passengers feel safer in women-driven rickshaws, especially as the Vahini vehicles are equipped with security features such as cameras, mobile phones and panic buttons. 

Main picture credit: IKEA


This article is part of the in-depth Sustainable Transport briefing. See also:


The long haul to getting aviation biofuel off the ground

Flight shame movement and offsetting no match for rising passenger numbers

High hopes for hydrogen to get sustainable transport on track

How digital is easing the pain of public transport in Africa


ICCT  electric vehicles  air pollution  ClimateWorks Foundation  Rocky Mountain Institute  Shuttl  SMV Green  The Climate Group EV100 

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