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Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | Why we need to look beyond the ‘electric’ smokescreen

I have been grappling with the government’s new-found obsession with electric mobility as if it is the only solution for India’s transportation problems.

If I were the government of India, I would be really bothered about two key things: One, bringing down my fuel import bill; and two, bringing down air pollution. I need to set the larger goals and targets for both, and leave it to experts to work out the best collaborative solutions.

Why do I have to aggressively push a particular solution? Is there a need to divert attention from the government’s responsibilities and shortcomings? Is electric mobility a grand smokescreen?

I have nothing against electric vehicles. I am a great fan of any new technology that can make life better.

We need “pragmatism", as espoused by Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping as they went about redefining Singapore and China, respectively. India should definitely adopt every new technology, but only when it is relevant and required. Why not let this be a self-propelled movement by the automotive and technology industries, rather than a mandate from the state?

We still cannot ensure 24x7 electricity supply to hospitals. All our villages still do not have reliable electricity supply. They have only been “connected" to the grid. Close to 80% of the electricity generated is from coal and gas. Yet another 50,000MW of coal-fired power plants are being set up under the National Electricity Plan. More than 20% of all the electricity generated goes into “transmission and distribution losses". Due to inadequate and irregular last-mile supply, close to 15 million tonnes of diesel is used by local generators to produce 80 billion KWh of electricity. Close to $2 billion worth of battery storage capacity is imported every year. And most independent power plants operate at 12-15% below their declared capacity as they over-invoice plant costs. Yet, we push ourselves into a solution knowing well that there will be immense pressure on a power grid that is not yet fully reliable.

There are solutions staring us in the face that lie squarely in the government’s court of responsibility, solutions that are woefully ignored.

First, let’s accept that pollution levels do not go up only due to vehicular emissions. Construction dust, road dust, thermal power generation, diesel generators, traditional cooking fuels, stubble burning and open waste burning also contribute. Therefore, the solution to arresting air pollution lies in action against each of these sources.

Second, dependence on fossil fuels can be cut down not just by banning diesel, but by other more sane and immediate measures. We need to upgrade ourselves to the latest diesel-engine technology, especially in public transport, reduce traffic congestion to cut down fuel wastage in idling, ensure adequate power supply to wish away those diesel gensets, and get into flex-fuels and diesel-blends.

Three decisive measures need to be taken by the government to impact both pollution and our fossil-fuel import bill positively.

First, ban all Bharat Stage 3 (BS3) vehicles and below. Scrap them immediately, irrespective of age. In one stroke, close to 40% of all the 300 million vehicles on the roads will be gone. But the government wants none of it, as its own fleets would need scrapping. Imagine the manufacturing upsurge, and all it would mean for employment and growth in consumption. Yet, there’s no “vehicle scrappage policy".

Second, assure top-notch public transport in India’s top 24 cities. Who would need personal transport if you have good-quality public transport services? A multi-modal grid of trains, buses, taxis, three-wheelers and two-wheelers could achieve this. Disruptive thought and action would be needed to make the status-conscious Indian adopt public transport as an act of responsibility rather than sacrifice. Allocate higher budgetary resources to public transport as a central programme, as was done for the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission in 2005.

Incentivize the manufacture and purchase of public transport vehicles through lower GST and cheaper loans. Encourage greater use of public transport among citizens through redemption and loyalty programmes. Get all organizations with more than 100 employees to use bus fleets.

Third, decongest the 60 top smart cities. They constitute almost 90% of our vehicular population and thus vehicular pollution. We also need to focus on smoother traffic flow, better parking management and pedestrian movement. Decongestion, like road safety, could be adopted as a cause by the government as well as corporate houses. A few friends of mine in oil companies estimate that close to 12% of vehicular fuel is wasted on idling and traffic snarls. To address this, expand the traffic police strength by four-five times in over-jammed cities. Create and mandate dedicated parking spots for shared mobility services. Create vast grids of pedestrian skywalks. Let the private sector operate multi-level parking lots.

Each of these actions has a short gestation period. Each would result in skilled employment—in manufacturing, driving and enforcement. Each would need existing resources as well as expertise for implementation. Each measure would show an immediate impact on vehicle-caused pollution and the use of fossil fuels. Yet, what we have is an “electric" smokescreen. Hope the smoke is just dry ice.

Avik Chattopadhyay is co-founder of Expereal, a brand and business strategy firm

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