Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images
Snapshot
  • The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways plans to allow older vehicles to ply as electric hybrids

    The Government’s proposal is nothing to cheer about. What it needs to do is to push for more charging stations, and open up the sector for further research, development and commercialisation.

    What the government should certainly avoid is creating legal monopolies as in the case of City Gas Distribution networks.

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways recently amended the Central Motor Vehicles Rules of 1989 to allow older vehicles to be retrofitted with a hybrid-electric system kit. The notification states that a vehicle is now eligible for retrofitting if it conforms to Bharat-II or newer emission norms and if it is powered by petrol or diesel, and not by any other fuel. It should not have been retrofitted earlier as well.

It is almost as if the Government of India is attempting to safeguard the industry and the customers from a possible nationwide ban by the Supreme Court on diesel vehicles with more than 2000cc engine capacity. Speculations aside, we really don’t think that such retrofitting will, in any way, achieve the stated purpose—decreasing emissions.

At best, it may help the citizens of Delhi who will soon be gifted a permanent version of the Odd-Even Rule by the Kejriwal government. Here too, only the sticker or certificate saying that the said car is a hybrid will matter.

The Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) adoption in Delhi, due to the Supreme Court ruling, started over 15 years ago. Initially, CNG users had to face hour-long queues to get refills. Now they have to face lines of about half an hour due to increased CNG adoption by commercial vehicles (again, due to an SC ruling). In our opinion, the half an hour figure may be quite conservative. Before the SC ruling on commercial taxis, the queue was about 15 mins. So, even after 15 years of CNG in Delhi, commuters need to stand in long queues for the fuel.

One of the reasons for such a situation is that until 30 January 2016, Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) was the legal monopolist of city gas distribution in New Delhi. The sudden increase in demand courtesy the Supreme Court ruling has only made the situation worse. No matter how hard IGL now tries to build more CNG stations, they won’t be built for years. Here is what a member of the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), appointed by the Supreme Court, told The Indian Express:

“They (IGL and Gas Authority of India Limited) have promised to build 150 new CNG stations in NCR. But the process is a time-consuming one because land has to be acquired, pipelines have to be laid, and safety norms have to be complied with.”

The permits mentioned above are quite large in number and come from multiple layers of government—municipal corporations, State governments and the Central Government (in some cases, even the Armed Forces). We leave it to the reader to estimate how much time this will take.

The situation in Mumbai and Pune is only marginally better. State-owned Maharashtra Natural Gas Ltd has 31 CNG stations in Pune while Mahanagar Gas has 190 in the Mumbai Metropolitan region. Unlike Delhi, neither of these two cities mandates CNG as a requirement for commercial vehicles. Public transport uses a mix of both CNG and diesel-powered vehicles.

To add to the issues associated with retrofitting—while a CNG refill (excluding the time spent waiting for it) takes about three to five minutes, a recharge of the super expensive Tesla Roadster takes about 3.5 hours. Recharging low-tech, retrofitted hybrids will only be possible overnight. Recharging cars in your garage will push your electricity consumption to a higher tariff bracket. Therefore, it will only be cost efficient to do it in a designated, public charging point. Given how well that worked out with CNG it is extremely wishful thinking to believe that it will be different in the case of hybrids.

If this is the case with our national capital and our financial capital, we can easily conclude that hybrid vehicles won’t make much of an impact on pollution in Indian cities.

Another point to note is the abysmal condition of the infrastructure of electric vehicles. Back in 2010, Tata Motors had deferred the launch of its Nano Electric in India due to the unavailability of charging infrastructure. The situation is not too different today. Plug In India, a website that aims to promote electric vehicles, lists 194 charging points across the country—most of which are in major cities. After purchasing the Reva from Maini, Mahindra and Mahindra set up electric charging stations across the country, but these are still low for the number of vehicles we have.

This move, may not be in a disaster in the case of Public Transport. But, it will be an expensive move which will lead to suboptimal fleet efficiency.

Back in 2014, the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) had procured an electric bus from China-based BYD Co Ltd. The bus was on a trial period for three months in Bangalore after which it was returned. BMTC never went further because of a high cost of investment—Rs two crore, while a Volvo cost them Rs 75 lakh. Not much was told about how or where these buses were charged, but there were claims that these buses could make two to three round trips on a single charge.

Two years later, in 2016, Tata Motors announced an order of 25 diesel-electric hybrid buses for the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking (BEST) to operate in Mumbai. A little later, BEST also announced its intention of converting some of its diesel and CNG fleets into fully electric ones. BEST, apart from operating buses within Greater Mumbai, also supplies electricity to South Mumbai, thus, making it easier for them to set up charging infrastructure within their depots.

Public transport enjoys an advantage over private vehicles here. Buses are usually parked overnight at a depot where they are fuelled and cleaned before they make their maiden trip in the morning. Even for a low-tech retrofitted system, an overnight charge would be sufficient for the bus to be able to run for at least a few short trips, if not a few longer journeys. It would all boil down to the bus itself, similar to how some buses outperform others in the diesel and CNG market currently.

The Government’s proposal is nothing to cheer about. What it needs to do is to push for more charging stations, and open up the sector for further research, development and commercialisation. What the government should certainly avoid is creating legal monopolies as in the case of City Gas Distribution networks.

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