“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”– Alanis Obomsawin
At the stroke of the midnight hour on that fateful day in 1947, India had a sum total of less than 300,000 vehicles in its automotive arsenal – cars, bikes, trucks, buses, and everything else on wheels included – less than 15 percent of which were two-wheeled. Today, India has over 25 million four-wheeled cars, jeeps and trucks registered to private owners, escalating by about 2 million new vehicles every year. The same data registry of 2013 by the Ministry of Road Transport also recorded more than 130 million two-wheelers plying on Indian roads. A staggering number by any measure, and greater than the number of four-wheelers by a factor of five.
This two-wheeled epidemic is a significant contributor to India’s position as the world’s 3rd largest carbon emitter, following China and the United States. Not an enviable podium finish, and certainly not in line with the renewable-friendly outlook of the present-day administration, which aims very publicly to halt the sale of fossil-powered vehicles by 2030 – a tall claim, but not impossible, according to automotive and policy experts alike.
“In a country like India, electric two wheelers will be a more natural choice for consumers and will lead the way to transforming mobility,” says Tarun Mehta, co-founder of Ather Energy, a Bangalore-based startup brewing a solution to India’s urgent electric needs. Ather’s concoction so far is a prototype scooter called the Ather S340 that first cruised on-stage at the Surge startup conference, driven by Mehta himself. After an 18-month delay on the launch date, the company is presently working on certifications for the e-bike, and Mehta expects the assembly lines to be in place by December.
“The automotive industry as a whole is making the shift to electric, and aside from private vehicles we also need public transport to do the same,” he adds.
While battery-powered buses remain distant technological dreams, electric metros are a very real solution. The Delhi Metro project, among the world’s largest, is a compelling testament to the success of environment-friendly mass transport systems. A concerted effort to provide intracity metro-rail connectivity to all Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities would go a long way in reducing the country’s colossal carbon footprint.
The metro and electric bus are, however, only partial solutions that cannot fully address the mobility needs of a billion travelers. Metros don’t provide last mile connectivity and, more importantly, take many years to design, construct and operate. Even at full pace, India could only complete perhaps six or seven city-metro projects by the Government’s self-imposed timeline of 2030. Not to say that this wouldn’t make a dent in emissions, but it’s far from the quietus that will end the fuel-powered automotive generation.
For a more effective euthanasia then, we must turn still to the electrification of motor-vehicles. Silenced for too long by companies like Honda and Ford, that wantonly bought out and suppressed hundreds – perhaps thousands – of patents advancing the electric vehicle (EV) to protect their primitive interests in the combustion engine, it is time to empower the new wave of the automotive industry. EV-friendly policies, funding technological R&D, and a migration of farsighted investors are integral to mould a healthy economy in which may be forged the future of automobiles.
“If all key stakeholders work together, this could be made possible. India has been known to leapfrog technology, so there is a very high likelihood of us achieving this target,” predicts Tarun Mehta.
The most obvious strategy would be to subsidise the sale of EVs, a method already in practice with 4-wheelers like the Mahindra E20.
“But the Government is fundamentally disinterested in subsidies,” notes Kapil Shelke, founder of Tork Motorcycles, adding that they are, however, “engaging businessmen in a dialogue to draft the policies that will shape the future of EVs.”
Tork Motorcycles is another electric-bike startup based out of Pune, working on a suave-looking solution to the commercial electric vehicle problem. The T6X is a stripped-down, daily-drive bike carved out of the e-superbike T3X, an Isle of Man TTXGP runner-up (the TTXGP is a zero-carbon format of the legendary motorcycle race, touted as the most dangerous in the world). Though there is no fixed timeline for the launch of the mass-market T6X, the e-bike is in the testing phase and has begun pilot production.
“Homegrown technologies are the primary focus of the administration, which is clearly averse to the cheap Chinese knock-offs flooding the Indian EV market and bringing disrepute to a promising sector. Framing sound policies for charging stations and other infrastructure necessary to support EVs is the path forward, and I see positive action on their part in the form of the Champions of Change initiative by the Niti Ayog,” says an optimistic Shelke.
Direct subsidies for electric two-wheelers are not mentioned in the annual budget, and no Government spokesperson has promised anything of the sort, but there is a clear tilt to favour EVs evident in the comprehensive GST legislation. While hybrid vehicles are taxed at the maximum 28 per cent under the new tax regime, two- and four-wheeled EVs have been slotted in the 12 percent tax bracket – a clear indication of the administration’s commitment to its 2030 deadline. Tarun Mehta acknowledges this push for positive reinforcement of the electric generation, adding, “The Central and State governments are playing a very active role in promoting EVs, and working with industry players to create a policy framework that will address all aspects of going electric.”
The writing’s on the wall then – inventors, investors, and policy makers need to focus on the 2-wheeler segment if they want immediate effect. Tall claims and fine yarns, however, are the hallmarks of a weave-master administration adept at promising hope more than a decade into the future, when the maker of said claims conveniently won’t be around to hold liable. For a country where the bottomline is “kitna deti hai?“, automotive manufacturers, environmentalists and concerned citizens alike must turn now to the powers that be and pose the same question.