New Delhi: It’s been touted as a solution to urban India’s traffic woes, chronic pollution and fossil fuel dependence, as well as an escape from backbreaking human toil.

A state-of-the-art, solar-powered version of the humble cycle rickshaw promises to deliver on all this and more.

The “soleckshaw", unveiled this month in New Delhi, is a motorized cycle rickshaw that can be pedalled normally or run on a 36-volt solar battery.

Developed by the state-run Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, or CSIR, prototypes are receiving a baptism of fire by being road-tested in the Capital’s Chandni Chowk area.

No footprints: Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit (left) and Union minister for science and technology Kapil Sibal taking a ride in the newly launched solar-powered rickshaw, on 2 October. Manan Vatsyayana / AFP

“The most important achievement will be improving the lot of rickshaw drivers," said Pradip Kumar Sarmah, head of the non-profit Centre for Rural Development, that is driving the pilot project.

“It will dignify the job and reduce the labour of pedalling. From rickshaw pullers, they will become rickshaw drivers," Sarmah said.

India has an estimated eight million cycle rickshaws.

The makeover includes FM radios and power points for charging mobile phones during rides. Gone are the flimsy metal and wooden frames that give the regular Delhi rickshaws a tacky, sometimes dubious look.

The “soleckshaw", which has a top speed of 15km a hour, has a sturdier frame and sprung, foam seats for up to three people.

The fully charged solar battery will power the rickshaw for 50-70km. Used batteries can be deposited at a centralized solar-powered charging station and replaced for a nominal fee.

If the tests go well, the “soleckshaw" will be a key transport link between sporting venues at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

“Rickshaws were always environment-friendly. Now, this gives a totally new image that would be more acceptable to the middle classes," said Anumita Roy Choudhary of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.

“Rickshaws have to be seen as a part of the solution for modern traffic woes and pollution. They have never been the problem. The problem is the proliferation of automobiles using fossil fuels," she said.

Initial public reaction to the “soleckshaw" has been generally favourable, and the rickshaw pullers have few doubts about its benefits.

“Pedalling the rickshaw was very difficult for me," said Bappa Chatterjee, 25, who migrated to the Capital from West Bengal and is one of the 500,000 pullers in Delhi. “I used to suffer chest pains and shortage of breath going up inclines. This is so much easier."

“Earlier, when people hailed us, it was like, ‘Hey you rickshaw puller!’ Police used to harass us, slapping fines even abusing us for what they called wrong parking. Now people look at me with respect," Chatterjee said.

Mohammed Matin Ansari, another migrant from Bihar, said the new model offered parity with car, bus and scooter drivers. “Now we are as good as them," he said.

Indian authorities have big dreams for the “soleckshaw". Science and technology minister Kapil Sibal, who hailed the invention for its “zero carbon footprint", said it should be used beyond the confines of Delhi. “Soleckshaws would be ideal for small families visiting the Taj Mahal," he said.

At present battery-operated buses ferry people to the iconic monument in Agra—but their limited numbers cannot cope with the heavy tourist rush.

CSIR director Sinha said he hoped an advanced version of the “soleckshaw" with a car-like body would become a viable alternative to the “small car" favoured by Indian middle class families.

“Greenhouse gas emissions are showing an increasing trend year-on-year and 60% of this comes from the global transport sector," Sinha said.

“In the age of global warming, the soleckshaw, with improvements, can be successfully developed as competition for all the petrol- and diesel- run small cars."