“We have no choice but to move to e-autos”

As the transport department struggles to phase out two-stroke autos, here is what an official has to say about the challenges of introducing e-autos on Bangalore roads.

In an earlier article on electric autos, we had explored how electric rickshaws could serve as a panacea both for the growing air pollution in Bengaluru, as well as the last mile connectivity issues that plague commuters in the city. We had even outlined the policy that exists with regard to introduction of such vehicles. But the transition from paper to practical use has its own challenges.

Continuing that focus, we sat down for a chat with Omkareshwari, Joint Director, E-Governance and Environment, Department of Transport to discuss more about the official policy and get an idea of when e-autos are likely to hit the streets of Bengaluru.

During the tenure of  B Dayanand as Transport Commissioner, he had proposed e-autos be introduced in Bangalore sometime this year. Where are we on that? 

As you rightly pointed out, it was during the tenure of Mr Dayanand that the Electric Vehicle and Energy Storage Policy got introduced, but it was under the aegis of the Department of Industries and Commerce. So that will be looked after by that department.

However, as far electrical vehicles are concerned, they do fall under our purview. We have already given tax exemptions and permit exemptions for e-autos and they are allowed to ply everywhere else, but in Bangalore city. They also don’t need a license to operate because the speed limit is under 25 km/hr for these vehicles, but that may be changed in the future. It should happen in the Road Safety Bill that is coming up.

Why was permission denied to e-autos in Bangalore city?

The vehicle population is quite dense in Bangalore. The traffic police were concerned that traffic congestion would get worse if we added these e-autos. So they refused permission to allow these vehicles to ply on our city roads. But there have been continuing discussions with them, though I am not very sure what the status on that is.

There were media reports that the Traffic Police have agreed to permit e-autos to ply in Bangalore. The former Additional commissioner of Police Traffic and Law, Hitendra did make a statement that they had arrived at an agreement to allow these vehicles, since their main concern was the speed of these vehicles.

With regard to this issue, the transport department is of the opinion that we replace the current batch of auto rickshaws including 2-stroke autos…

How many 2-stroke autorickshaws still ply in Bangalore and weren’t they supposed to phased out by now (the deadline was April 2018)?

By our estimate, we have about 25,000 2-stroke autos still plying in Bangalore. Yes they were meant to be phased out. We already have the Autorickshaw Scrap Policy in place that allows owners to scrap the 2-stroke autorickshaws and convert them to LPG or electric-autos, but nobody came forward. Last year, we had earmarked Rs 30 crore for this. But there were no takers.

Why do you think that is the case?

(Laughs) Because there are a lot of hidden agendas in this that I cannot discuss. At the outset, the auto rickshaw drivers did not want to scrap their vehicles and get new vehicles.

Even with a subsidy being offered?

Yes. We had offered a subsidy of Rs 30,000 for each of them.

After they hand over their vehicles to you for scrapping?

Yes. We had even talked to dealers to help get them a new rickshaw.

What was the policy exactly? How could they avail the subsidy?

They would have to scrap their 2-stroke vehicle and cancel the registration and buy a LPG fitted vehicle in its place.

And this is voluntary, not mandatory?

Well the auto unions are arguing that we have no power under the Motor Vehicle Act to demand scrapping of working vehicles. How do you compel us to scrap a running vehicle? As I told you Rs 30 crore was earmarked — each subsidy being set at Rs 30,000 for 10,000 vehicles.

What is the cost of an electric rickshaw? Is it the price difference that is a barrier?

It is about Rs 1.75 Lakh for a regular auto rickshaw. For e-autos that run on a lithium battery, it is about Rs 1.25 Lakh for the battery and on road price may come up to about Rs 2.25 lakh to include the rest of it. The battery is what is very expensive, but it has a very good life. These points were discussed when we thought of promoting e-vehicles and e-rickshaws.

We even considered hiring these batteries and swapping them when the batteries ran out. A charged battery given to you at a charging station and petrol bunks … where you can swap them. But till the policy comes into place, we can’t really say anything.

But what is the initiative for an auto driver in this? The cost and the subsidy that you mentioned has a lot of difference. Why would an auto driver incur that debt with no incentive for him?

The transport department cannot announce the subsidy that auto rickshaw drivers demand. We have restraints too. The Finance Department completely rejected our proposal to enhance the subsidy offered from Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000 – twice.

But my question remains, what is the incentive for an auto driver? How do you convince him?

Well, like I said, we have our constraints too as a department. We called a meeting with the banks. Banks normally don’t give loans to them because many of them don’t make regular payments. We asked the banks to open a separate counter for drivers approaching them for loans. We also asked the dealers to deliver a new vehicle to these guys who come to them after scrapping their vehicles; the minute they get the subsidy in their accounts, it would be transferred to them.  We tried to make it easy for them, but the larger community did not accept it and hoped we would withdraw that policy.

A previous statement by a transport department official mentioned that the fare of autos – both LPG and e-autos – would be kept at par. How is that possible? Aren’t the rates going to be different.

I don’t think that is possible to keep them same. It has be fixed on the basis of the mileage.

With regard to e-autos, another major hurdle is the requirement of charging units for them around the city. There was talk about a Special Purpose Vehicle to help set them up. Where are we on this?

After Dayananda Sir’s tenure as Transport commissioner, Naveen Raj Singh took over. This was a flagship project under him. Rs 4 crore was earmarked to establish these charging stations in 200 spots, which had been identified by BESCOM. Out of those 200 spots we agreed to set up charging stations in 125 spots and everything was done. But by then he got transferred and later on, somehow the Transport Department chose not to continue the project. So we handed over the amount to BESCOM. Now they are on the job and taking that project forward. They have already identified the spots.

Has a charging station been set up anywhere?

I am not in touch with the DGM right now. But I think they are on the job. You can talk to DGM, Mr Srinath for more information.

Has the Transport Department identified routes for e-autos to ply on, because there were announcements in that regard too?

These vehicles were not permitted…

But this was after the traffic police gave a go ahead…

No we haven’t done that yet.

Do we have any studies that talk of auto rickshaw-induced pollution, for example, Particulate Matter released by an auto when it plies for about 6 or 10 hours?

I don’t have any study with regard to this. You should be able to get this from the Pollution Control Board.

But the Transport department has no information on the pollution emission, even from public vehicles?

We have not undertaken any study regarding this. Neither have we contacted any NGO or Self Help Group about this.

Another important aspect of this issue is that of Share Carriage Permit…it seems that e-rickshaws cannot be a shared auto system since such permit belongs exclusively to the BMTC. Is this a sentiment that the transport department continues with?

It is a policy matter and that decision can only be taken by the Government. So I cannot comment on it.

But where does the Transport Department stand on this?

Very honestly, we are still struggling to phase out the 2-stroke autorickshaws (Laughs)

The initial enthusiasm for e-vehicles that we saw under the Siddaramaiah government seems to have waned under the current administration. While we continue to move forward to encourage the manufacturing of e-vehicles, we don’t seem to keen on having them on our roads. As somebody in charge of Transport, what do you think are the repercussions of continuing to add fossil fuel vehicles?

I have no comments for the question (about administration or the official stance). But I can give you my personal opinion on pollution. Bangalore has a vehicular population of about 77 lakh. And we have to switch to e-vehicles. We have no choice in the matter. We have move to e-vehicles, especially e-autos. No choice at all.

So, how far are we from the reality of having e-autos on Bangalore roads?

The farthest deadline is 2020. We have already come up with a proposal for the promotion of e-rickshaws. It is pending with the government.  So if that is taken up…

What is this proposal?

Along the same lines as was mentioned earlier. To give subsidy to newly purchased vehicles and retro fitted vehicles among other measures. It was submitted last month and discussed with Principal Secretary. It is still pending…

So by 2020, we will have more e-autos in Bangalore?

We are thinking of phasing out 2-stroke autos and bringing in e-autos in their place. If our Auto Rickshaw Scrap Policy had worked out, we’d be half way there.

How much money has been earmarked for subsidy this year?

Rs 1 lakh. The Finance department did not give us money for it since we did not utilise it from the previous year. They told us if we come up with policy, they will then release money, if there is money in the exchequer.

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