The Indian Electric Avenue

India's electric mobility policy must to look at the requirements of the poor rather than the joys of the rich. EVs are the lifeline for the under-privileged and public transport must be the focus.

Avik Chattopadhyay
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As a kid, when first exposed to the Grammies on television, I heard a song called “Electric Avenue” by Eddy Grant. All I remembered then was its reggae beat. Much later did I learn that it was a song of protest, commemorating the riots in England’s Brixton due to unemployment, racism and poverty.

India’s Electric Avenue though, since the first FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacture of Electric vehicles) scheme in 2015, has been, like our electricity supply, erratic, given to sudden fluctuations and not reaching out to those that actually benefit from any technological disruption: the young entrepreneur and the individual who currently walks to work.

Given the vehicle penetration levels in our country, adopting a cleaner way to run mobility should have been a no-brainer. Public transport first and commercial transport second. Private transport could be looked at a good two decades after the first two categories had reached a level of electrification. That would have actually seen cleaner skies and greater recycling. But no, we obsess with private cars! On the one hand we need to provide free rations to 80 crore citizens and close to 7 million children do not get a meal day, while on the other, we bother about removing evil smoke-spewing diesel SUVs from the 20 odd metropolises, because Europe is doing so. The mind boggles!

We wish to become a lighthouse in a Net Zero world without investing in the foundation that needs to go deep. Without getting into the optics of being seen moving around in hydrogen cars and electric scooters, we should have first been working on overhauling the entire traffic management system in every large city to decongest it, thereby saving on substantial fossil fuel as the natural kick-starter to the green mobility movement.


Second, we should have focused only on electrifying public transport modes over the next 5 years. Public transport systems need not depend on nation-wide charging networks but self-contained cluster ones within their parking / resting hubs.

Third, all fuel stations across the country should have been upgraded to multi-energy stations, thereby building the much required nation-wide charging network, within the cities and towns and on the expressways and highways. This would have almost negated the need for home-based charging points. This third stage could have taken another 5 years.

Finally, by 2025, ten years after the first FAME scheme, the policy maker and planner could have looked at the 4-wheeler, after significant portions of the bus fleets, 2-wheelers, 3-wheelers and micro commercial vehicles had been electrified.  

Electrification is not a solution meant for the rich. It is a lifeline for the poor and not-so-rich. That is the fundamental truth we cannot look away from. Electric mobility, in its very nature, is a cheaper way to move, while being greener than conventional ICE. The economics in movement take precedence over cleaning the air.

Similarly, electrification is not the best solution for personal mobility. It is a must for public transport and commercial transport. This is the second fundamental truth we cannot escape from. The benefits from electrification are experienced over a longer ownership and operating cycle, which is integral to both public and commercial modes of transport.

Yet, we obsess with showcasing electric cars. It is nothing but a manifestation of the “poverty” complex we suffer from, hence wanting to flaunt fancy cars and expensive motorcycles as a way of rubbing shoulders with the well-heeled in France, Germany and the US. And the fact that China has stolen a march over us by decades in this field makes us simmer no end.

Therefore, the obsession with getting Tesla to set up operations in India, at any cost.

From that heady day in September 2017 when Hon’ble Minister Nitin Gadkari had threatened to drag the Indian automobile industry by its collar if it did not go fully electric in the next five years, to now when Piyush Goyal announced an incredible sop of slashing import rates to 15% from 100% for an investment of USD 500 million and above, it has been a major climb-down in the government’s steadfast commitment to an electrifying future.

This was the opportune moment for the policy maker to actually take Indian brands like Mahindra, Tata, TVS, Hero and Bajaj across the world and pitch for them in each country the Hon’ble Ministers visit. If a BYD and Vinfast can happen, why not a Tata and TVS?

All the posturing of upholding our own manufacturing sovereignty over the interests of individual global players trying to browbeat us collapsed like a pack of cards in a few months’ time after Mr. Musk started acting a bully. All the talk of Atmanirbhar Bharat and nurturing local entrepreneurs has been thrown out of the window in one sweep of bowing down to a single organisation, just to revel in the optics of being seen with the big boys.

Add to this a new subsidy programme for electric 2-wheelers and 3-wheelers of around Rs.500 crores that lasts for, hold your breath, three whole months. Truly impressive.

India’s Electric Avenue is symbolic of all that is wrong with us. First, the policy maker and the industry still do not trust each other. Second, we pronounce initiatives and then go about planning them. Third, we refuse to accept that we need our own unique solutions without cut-copy-pasting from elsewhere. Lastly, we still suffer from a huge colonial hangover of being smitten by anything from a fair-skinned country, be it Apple or Tesla.

Is there no hope from here? There sure is. The policy maker has to come down from his high horse and actually allow the technocrats and industry run the electrification programme along with development economists and social scientists.

The sop that has been given to a Tesla should be given to every electric vehicle and green vehicle maker who plans to not only manufacture in India, but design and create in India. Having a threshold of USD 500 million as investment in the next 3-5 years is counter intuitive to encouraging start-ups to create truly disruptive and global operations.

And, most importantly, the focus has to be totally on public and commercial transport. Whatever be the size of our economy in 2047, if we can ensure that the 400 million who walk to work today for lack of a mobility solution finally find their emancipation in cheap and reliable electric buses, 2-wheelers and 3-wheelers, we can be a true lighthouse.        

I am an eternal optimist and do believe that the Indian Electric Avenue will be a model for the large part of the developing world to emulate. Till then, I am reminded of some lyrics from Eddy Grant’s international hit…

Who is to blame in one country?

Never can get to the one

Dealin' in multiplication

And they still can't feed everyone

(Oh, no) we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue

And then we'll take it higher

(Oh, no) we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue

And then we'll take it higher

Jai Hind!

Welcome to Electric Avenue, Indian style. 

TVS Tata FAME Vinfast BYD electric vehicles Eddy Grant Electric Avenue nitin gadkari