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Nayan Chanda

Nayan Chanda is the author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization and is Consulting Editor of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Center, Yale University.

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The Ride To A Pollution Free India

The smoke and noise-free e-rickshaws can not only help India to reduce its carbon footprint but also generate millions of jobs

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Barasat, on the outskirts of Kolkata, is very far from Paris. But what happens in cities like this across India may help the country live up to its commitment made at the Climate Change summit in Paris. The effect of the e-rickshaw, the humble three-wheel vehicle that could help cities like Barasat to clean up its emissions and push India to its goal is readily visible on the clean and relatively noise-free streets. The proliferation of battery-powered golf-cart like public transport in Barasat also offers an example of reality running ahead of regulation and the government’s nonchalance about the apparent illegality of an eco-friendly development.

India by ratifying the Paris Agreement has set in motion the process by which the agreement will come into force. India is now committed to reducing its carbon footprint by 33-35 per cent within 15 years from its 2005 levels.

Visiting the place where I spent many of my childhood years and return to frequently, I was struck by how much cleaner and quieter the streets of Barasat looked. It was quickly clear that the main reason for this transformation was the battery-powered rickshaws — called Toto — which noiselessly transports four, sometime five people, along the city’s narrow streets. Gone is the blue smoke, acrid smell and deafening noise of two-stroke autorickshaws.

Barasat, with its about 1,000 e-rickshaws, is only a tiny part of the burgeoning fleet of battery-powered vehicles. (The government estimates there are now a million e-rickshaws plying in Indian cities.) But reduction in emission, even taking into account CO2 emission from thermal power generation that charges the battery of these rickshaws, will contribute to India’s commitment to reduce emissions intensity. Since 13 of the world’s 16 most-polluted cities are in India, switching to battery-powered transportation in all cities is bound to help.

The government’s encouragement of e-rickshaws has brought opposition from the operators of traditional autorickshaws. They feel discriminated against as e-rickshaws are allowed to operate without any licence. Although the central government has said that only xxx of a million e-rickshaws are registered there does not seem to be any hurry to bring them under any regulation. Collecting licensing fee appears to be less important than encouraging the introduction of pollution-curbing e-rickshaws.

Apart from curbing pollution the e-rickshaws have also helped create job. After initially importing them from China India is now manufacturing to meet most of the growing demand, albeit with import of engine and critical parts from China. A million jobs have been created for Toto drivers. Biswas, an e-rickshaw operator in Barasat, says he recovered his initial investment of Rs 180,000 for the Toto in less than a year. Now he makes an average of Rs 700-800 a day and Rs 1,200 to 1,400 on special days like the Durga Puja festival. He is happy with his new life as an e-rickshaw operator as are his clients who pay Rs 6 to 15 for a ride — much cheaper than auto-rickshaws and certainly more comfortable without the belching smoke and noise of the auto rickshaw.

India’s experience with the rickshaws offers a good example of the way eco-friendly policies could bring both growth and create jobs. An initiative taken by Kochi in Kerala to introduce e-rickshaws with solar panels on top will not only create jobs but also reduce transport-generated pollution to zero. With government subsidy the solar rickshaw is priced at Rs 1,20,000, substantially cheaper than what Biswas of Barasat paid for his. If the Kochi model is emulated in other cities it would incrementally help India in its commitment to produce 100 GW of solar energy by 2022.