The electric vehicle revolution in India has already changed lives. If you haven’t noticed, maybe because you live in the posh parts, small battery-operated ‘e-rickshaws’ have spread like wildfire. But this is a largely unorganised sector. Data from the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, also known as SIAM, said that only 1823 units had been sold in July 2022. However, the Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations, or FADA, which uses registration data from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways’ VAHAN portal, said that 25,984 such vehicles—this is counting only passenger e-rickshaws—were sold and registered in India last month. Just for comparison, the same data from FADA shows that only 16,708 units of petrol-powered passenger three-wheelers were sold last year.
A quick note on the reason for this discrepancy in numbers—SIAM only counts data provided by its members and even then, some companies like BMW do not oblige. According to SIAM data, Mahindra produced and sold over 1,500 e-rickshaws to be the leader in this space. FADA information is based on actual registrations, and although those numbers can take some time to reflect on the registration portal, it captures the unorganised nature of this segment. Even some relatively large new players in the e-rickshaw space, such as Delhi-based Omega Seiki Mobility, give tough competition to Mahindra, particularly in the goods three-wheeler space. If you live in the National Capital Region, note the vehicle your next e-commerce delivery comes in. Chances are that it might be electric.
Also Read: Indian cars no longer dependent on foreign designs. Maruti promises to boost it further
An economic miracle
Enough about that. Just sifting through the data shows there are over a million e-rickshaws ferrying passengers across India. If you travel a fair bit, you’ll notice that these small, dinky vehicles tend to be concentrated more towards the north. This is partially because of the flat nature of the plains and the dire need for local transportation. And these small vehicles are already creating significant economic impact.
I usually loathe giving examples based on my own life, lest I fall down the trope of the ‘a taxi driver told me’ school of journalism. However, a few days ago, I was dropping my cook to her house as after a thunderstorm, rickshaws, both electric and gas operated, had stopped plying.
Nothing beats the good old car in such situations still. While taking her home, I asked her about e-rickshaws, and what she told me was fascinating. In the area of South Delhi where I live, e-rickshaws have transformed the lives of the service class. Compared to these, shared auto rickshaws appear unreliable and expensive. There are always e-rickshaws around, and they charge a flat fare of Rs 10 on their route. So instead of spending a couple of hours walking or Rs 100 trying to get auto rickshaws, on most days she would spend just Rs 40 on e-rickshaws.
Moreover, with the amount of time saved, she could even take on a job in another house. Although she joked that half of what she earned went into e-rickshaw fares, it was additional income that she could do with.
There is little doubt that the Delhi Transport Corporation has failed to provide last-mile or even decent mainline connectivity. Still, in smaller, less-affluent parts of town, the e-rickshaw has been an economic miracle. And this story is repeated across North India—small vehicles that don’t take long to charge, albeit at the cost of very limited range. From Kanpur to Meerut, e-rickshaws are scattered across cities in Uttar Pradesh, helping people navigate through the congested bylanes of these towns, saving time and human effort. In fact, the impact these vehicles have had on India can make for a fascinating study or even a doctoral thesis subject for a young researcher.
Also Read: Maruti needed to match up to Creta and Seltos. Grand Vitara’s first feel is impressive
Other than once at the National Media Centre in Gurugram, where e-rickshaws operate from the visitor parking lot to the residents’ home, a very nice set-up, I have not taken one publicly. And it isn’t because I’m some snobbish car driver. On the contrary, I’m quite a fan of public transport and happily jump onto buses and metro trains. But the reason I’m not too fond of e-rickshaws, particularly the unorganised variety, is because they’re unsafe. Just look at them, built from lightweight steel and plastic. And the few times you see clearly insane operators trying to drive one on arterial roads, you wonder if the person is suicidal.
While e-rickshaws provide transport to the household workers in my area at night, many drivers operate without switching on their headlights to eke out a little extra range, or so they think. Driving in the darkness, especially with many streetlights covered by foliage, these e-rickshaws can pop out of nowhere. And if you recall my article on eyesight, I have often wondered if the drivers have any idea of what they’re doing, playing not just with their lives but with that of their passengers.
Yes, the ‘bigger’ vehicle always gets blamed by the police, the media and society, although the courts are usually a bit more reasonable if you can get your side across. And make no mistakes, I feel these small vehicles are providing yeoman service, but at what cost?
I have a problem with the focus on car safety in India. Yes, cars should become safer. Yes, cars must have anti-lock brakes and six airbags, but what about e-rickshaws? Why can’t they have norms about the materials used or the need for driver training? And to be fair, while most such vehicles stay well clear of arterial roads in India, in smaller towns, they happily climb onto high-speed highways with nary a care in the world. Safety has to be a holistic issue, and we cannot sacrifice it at the altar of ‘low cost.’
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)