Plugging in India

Every day, more than 60% of India’s population hits the road, which is a lot of road, but a lot of people to fill it. Although this ranks as the second biggest network in the world (at 3,862,317 miles, it’s pipped only by the USA), life is a squeeze. Fast approaching 300 million vehicles, India’s population of 1.34 billion people (that’s roughly 20 times ours) jostles for space with scant regard for safety. And with more than 115,000 deaths in the latest annual tally, India demonstrates arguably less concern for longer-term health: amid rankings for the world’s 30 most polluted cities, the world’s largest democracy scored 21 in 2019.

Fume-free EVs to the rescue then? Despite incentives and warm words from the government, sales as yet, cover just 1.3% of the market. But under the government’s “Make In India” programme, India hopes to boost EV manufacturing’s contribution to GDP to 25% in 2022. By 2030, India has declared at least a wish (no sniggering at the back) to see a “major shift” to fume-free transport with 30% of sales being EVs. In parallel, India also aspires to push the adoption of electric cookers, naked flame kitchens being a major contributor to poor air quality.

It’s the saving at street level that might drive EV success: switching to electric is now claimed to represent a gain of Rs. 20,000, or nearly £20, for every 5,000km of journeys. And (if it can get its act together on making more of its own green energy) the government is also mightily aware that every fossil-fuel burner off the road marks a step to reducing the nation’s current GDP loss. Smog alone is estimated to be choking India’s economy to the tune of 3% a year.

Like anywhere, politics and pragmatism can be strangers, but in Tamil Nadu the first retrofit scheme for e-rickshaws got under way in 2015. The idea delivers immediate air quality benefits, but in Delhi, several deaths attributed to their stealthy progress led to an e-rickshaw ban in 2014. Despite this, the city is thought to host more than 100,000 ‘illegal’ battery-driven rickshaws today, with this relatively cheap and accessible form of electric vehicle transport making unofficial inroads.

What isn’t, or hasn’t, is hybrid technology. “In India,” reports the Hindustan Times, “the hybrid story hasn’t been anywhere near as successful, mainly because hybrid cars are eye-wateringly expensive.” Being bracketed with high-end luxury motors, potential buyers must also shoulder the running costs of two forms of technology. Set against the economic background of a nation that pays its average worker $300 a month, such models as Toyota’s Camry Hybrid, says the paper, are so expensive it’s like “buying a mansion and fitting it with 25W bulbs to save on electricity costs”.

Perhaps Tata’s Nexon Electric is a more achievable proposition. As a pure EV, it’s now dominating the modest chart for EV sales. Last year, 2,602 were sold, but in August alone this year, sales topped 1,022. Dwarfing the 2020 sales of Hyundai’s plug-in Kona and the MG ZS EV, Business Today India has heralded the Nexon, with a range of 186 miles, as the first affordable EV for private buyers. Its price range, which starts at around £14,600, equates to a broad saving of 33% on the Kona EV’s pricing. 

So, India finally has a home-grown and convincingly cute EV offering to satisfy at least most of automotive critics, albeit tethered to an understandable warning: plans are aplenty to pepper India with EV charging points, but here and now, they barely scratch the map. 30% EVs by 2030? The reality of EV life in 2021 is a degree of challenge that can make electric UK EV ownership seem like an absolute doddle.

To soothe early adopters’ nerves, there are now more than 250 groups on WhatsApp and Twitter, busy swapping and sharing tips for easy EV motoring. But for pioneers, it’s still a jungle out there, as journalist Ananda Gupta, who recently braved New Delhi’s fierce traffic for a long day piloting a BMW i3 agrees: “There is no escaping that you are grappling with anxiety,” he says. With barely any charging stations, an electric car is a logical option “but the technology and the supporting in

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