Across Indian cities, ‘informal public transport’ such as the shared-auto, mini-bus, tempos, and e-rickshaws are increasingly being replaced by cab aggregators such as Uber and Ola. While this is great news for the affluent section of society, who can get a ride in a jiffy and travel in the relative ease of an air-conditioned cars, millions of Indians who rely heavily on informal public transport (IPT) modes are left in the lurch.
Apart from being affordable, IPT offers efficient mobility, especially in smaller towns and cities which lack formal public transport systems. This sector also plays a major role in the creation of jobs—thousands migrate to cities to take up jobs driving rickshaws, despite the low wages. Yet, the modern definition of ‘shared mobility’ excludes them.
It is important to understand just how much Indian cities depend on IPT. The ITDP India Programme’s extensive study in Ranchi showed that over a fourth of all trips are made by shared autos. This situation is common among tier-2 and tier-3 cities where public transport is missing in action. However, there is ample scope to improve how IPT operates – for instance, route planning [by the RTO and the urban local body] can reduce congestion in busy localities and provide coverage throughout a city.
For Indian cities to have efficient, sustainable, safe and comfortable mobility, they need to start improving the IPT sector alongside public transport systems. The recent conversations surrounding electric mobility provides an excellent opportunity to intervene in ‘formalising’ IPT.
How much of an impact could electrification of IPT have on Indian cities?
As stated above, a significant number of trips are made using IPT in several Indian cities. Electrification will reduce the nation’s dependence on oil imports. Oil imports are a significant drain on the public exchequer, costing Rs. 5.6 lakh crores in the fiscal year of 2018. Electrification will also significantly reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fueled vehicles (assuming that the source of electricity is also clean).
It has been extensively reported that Indian cities are grappling with very poor air quality. WHO reports that 14 out of the world’s 15 most polluted cities are in India, nearly all of them in the northern region. These are also the same cities where IPT forms the backbone of public transport. Given that electrification will drastically reduce local emissions from transport, cities should actively try to switch from fossil fuel based vehicles.
This is not to say that electrification of IPT is at a nascent stage in India. Several northern Indian cities have taken to e-rickshaws over the past decade, so much so that they currently form the largest electric fleet in the world, comprising of 1.5 million vehicles!
E-rickshaws evolved from efforts in the late 1990’s to modernize the humble cycle-rickshaw. They first gained popularity in Delhi as efforts to improve mobility infrastructure in the lead up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. These vehicles used cheaper lead-acid batteries for power and were easy to drive, with low capital and maintenance costs. These factors led to an increase in its popularity across cities in north India. Today, estimates show that more than 11,000 such vehicles enter the market every month.
This growth has been largely driven by the private sector; efforts from the State have been rather limited. The Government of Delhi, realising the potential of electric IPT in reducing local air pollution, offered a subsidy of Rs 30,000 upon purchase. However, states and cities have yet not addressed the issue of ‘regulating’ these vehicles which can improve last mile connectivity, reduce road congestion, and improve air quality. In fact, initial uncertainties over the categorization of e-rickshaws under the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, as well as concerns over safety had even led to e-rickshaws being banned in cities like Delhi and Ranchi.
A conducive policy and regulatory environment is necessary to maximise the benefits of electrification. This would involve the set-up of supporting infrastructure such as charging stations and e-rickshaw stands, identifying routes for operation, and having a clear set of guidelines on enforcement. However, as mentioned above, IPT often does not get the attention it deserves. An example for the same can be seen in the FAME scheme. The initial focus of the scheme was to incentivise electrification of private motor vehicles. Even though three-wheelers were part of the scheme, the lack of attention to the end-users—the owner and the commuter—meant that the uptake was minimal.
To unlock the full potential of electrification, India should have a clear vision expressed through a model ‘national electric vehicle’ policy. While addressing the whole spectrum of electric vehicles, the core focus of the policy should undoubtedly be on the electrification of modes that have low per capita energy and space requirement—specifically buses and informal public transport—and disincentivize the use of modes that are polluting, and consume higher per capita energy and space, such as cars. Such progressive policies would help states adopt a similar stance based on their contextual requirements.
Written by Vishnu M J
Edited by Kashmira Medhora Dubash
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