The government has already placed what is believed to be the world's biggest single order of electric vehicles
India aims to go all-electric on roads by 2032
India's prime minister Narendra Modi has an ambitious goal: to replace all the cars and buses on India’s roads with electrical vehicles by 2032 in a bid to reduce both pollution and the country’s dependence on oil.
But big questions remain unanswered. Does India have the infrastructure to support this shift? Can Indians afford electric vehicles? And is this even the right move for the future of the country’s mobility?
India is home to 160 million privately-owned motor vehicles — cars, vans, motorcycles, lorries and minibuses. It is the fifth-largest automobile market in the world, with 21 million new vehicles sold every year, but at the moment, only one per cent of those are electric.
In May, Niti Aayog, a planning body headed by Mr Modi, released a blueprint to electrify every vehicle in India by 2032. Mr Modi’s ministers have taken every chance to reiterate this goal.
“We should move towards alternative fuel,” Nitin Gadkari, India’s transport minister, said at the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers’ annual convention last month. “I am going to do this, whether you like it or not. And I am not going to ask you. I will bulldoze it.”
Last week, the government announced that Tata Motors had won a contract to supply 10,000 electric cars, costing $17,200 (Dh63,177) apiece, to replace some of the state’s 500,000-odd petrol and diesel cars. An agency run by India’s power ministry called it the world’s biggest single order of electric vehicles.
The twin targets of this drive are significant. India’s cities suffer increasingly from pollution. Delhi now holds the dubious accolade of capital city with the world’s worst air.
A 2013 study in the journal Atmospheric Environment concluded that more than half — 54 per cent — of minuscule pollution particles suspended in the air in Delhi and 33 per cent of sulphur dioxide comes from vehicles. Other sources of pollution include windblown dust and thermal power plants.
The government estimates that a successful switch to electric vehicles will cut emissions by 37 per cent across India.
The thrust towards electrification is also driven by fiscal concerns. Last year, India spent 4.5 trillion rupees (Dh250 billion) on imported oil. At least a quarter of this can be replaced with biofuels, according to an estimate by India's oil ministry. Electric vehicles can reduce the import bill by a further $60 billion, Mr Gadkari said.
But the deadline of 2032 is unrealistic, said Mihir Sharma, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think-tank.
“The government has a history of setting tough targets and then subsequently rolling them back under pressure,” Mr Sharma told The National. For example: the Stage V emission norms designed to make vehicle fuels burn cleaner wee supposed to be implemented in 2015 but finally launched in 2017.
These targets are deferred, Mr Sharma said, because technology cannot catch up fast enough and because manufacturers lobby for postponements. In the case of the Stage V fuel norms, oil companies were not able to upgrade their factories by 2015.
India will face similar bottlenecks for electric vehicles. Ashok Datar has already experienced some of them.
Mr Datar, who heads the Mumbai Environmental Social Network, bought an electric Reva in 2006. The Reva, manufactured in India, is a small, two-seater car, and he was fond of it. But he needed to change the batteries every two or three years, he said, and that cost him 100,000 rupees (Dh5,619) each time.
“The car didn’t give more than 60 kilometres per charge,” he said. “As the batteries kept getting old, the range became smaller.” The newer Reva models, he said, have improved but ideally electric cars should run up to 150 kilometres on a single charge with four people on board.
The question of where drivers will be able to charge India’s incoming electric vehicles is also crucial. Across India, there are nearly 50,000 fuel pumps that supply petrol and diesel, but only just over 200 electric charging stations. Setting up a new charging station can cost anywhere between $500 (Dh1,836) and $25,000 (Dh91,822), depending upon how fast the charger is.
Electricity in India is also inconsistent. During the summer, when electricity demand is high, voltages fluctuate frequently, putting appliances at risk. Blackouts spread through cities and transformers burn up.
Improving the grid and populating the country with charging stations within a short time will be difficult, given India’s commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Vast and efficient new solar plants will be needed to increase electricity production while keeping emissions low.
The cost of these vehicles will also pose a challenge for motorists, the banking giant UBS said in a research paper in August. A typical car in India costs $10,000 (Dh37,730) at the moment, but long-range electric cars will cost $21,500 (Dh78,967) even in 2025.
“We believe greater government investment will be needed to make EVs [electric vehicles] more attractive to consumers and manufacturers,” UBS wrote, “but the government has limited fiscal space and other priorities, so larger incentives to use EVs seem unlikely.”
Within urban India, electric cars may not need extraordinary ranges. “In most of our cities, average distances and trip length are short, and suitable for use of short-range electric vehicles on local routes,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, the executive director for advocacy and research at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.
But what India really needs, if congestion on the roads is ever to improve, is to try and reduce people's reliance on private cars, she said.
“The bigger win will come from combining electro-mobility programmes with a public transport strategy.”