The government should reconsider its rush to get India to adapt to a mode of transport whose overall benefits to Earth are unclear. Let the market disrupt the auto sector on its own
After a series of flip-flops over its policy on electric vehicles (EVs) in the past couple of years, the government seems to be back to pushing aggressively for a switchover from fossil-fuel guzzlers. In 2017, the Centre declared that it wanted India to go fully electric by 2030, but later abandoned the deadline, perhaps realizing the lack of infrastructural readiness and how badly it would disrupt the automobile industry. This time, the government’s focus is on two-wheelers, at least to begin with. It has asked scooter and motorcycle makers to draw up a plan in two weeks on going green. Its aim: all two-wheelers on sale with an engine capacity of over 150cc should be electric from 2025 onwards. Why this haste? More fundamentally, should such a technology choice be thrust upon the market? These questions assume significance because the long-term environmental gains of a global transition to EVs remain unclear.
No doubt, our gasping cities would be better off without the exhaust fumes of internal combustion engines. However, electricity generation causes its own pollution, particularly in India, which depends largely on coal-fired plants for the purpose. What your vehicle saves by way of carbon containment, your power source could negate. So the harm done to our air by automobiles would then be done by power plants, which would need to add capacity to meet the higher demand for electricity. Then there is the question of setting up the charging infrastructure. India’s automobile market is the fourth-largest and among the fastest -growing in the world. In 2018-19 alone, more than 4 million new cars and commercial vehicles hit Indian roads, while 21 million-plus two-wheelers joined the country’s traffic. Installing charging facilities to serve such a vast and spread-out market will prove much harder than in western countries. Any grid failure here could cause chaos. Vehicle buyers seem reluctant to go electric for other reasons too. They would weigh their decisions by the performance, convenience and cost of EVs, which would have to excel on these parameters before they turn attractive. Batteries that take too long to charge or lack the juice to cover long distances would be dampeners.
Some might argue that if China is pushing for EV adoption, why not India? The point is, our northern neighbour has a strategic advantage in a mass switchover, given its easy access to lithium and cobalt, crucial battery inputs (with a carbon footprint of their own), and given the lead it appears to have taken in churning out low-cost, high-output automobile batteries. The greater the adoption of EVs, the more likely China can dominate personal transportation. India, on the other hand, will have to depend entirely on imports, particularly from China. Instead of crude oil dependency, we may be faced with another kind. In other words, there are several reasons that India should exercise restraint in converting its traffic to a new technology standard. First, the actual impact of alternative energy sources should be surveyed independently by the country. If EVs are indeed better for the planet, tax incentives could be used to prod people to buy them. But by and large, it’s best to leave the market to its own devices on EV conversion. If petrol guzzlers are to be consigned to history in a decade or so, let shifting consumer preferences do it, not a ban.