India’s Overhaul of the Transportation Sector is Moving at a Snail’s Pace

The PIL filed by the NGO Centre for Public Interest Litigation on the implementation of the FAME India policy has made headlines recently. A three judge bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, Justice Bobde recently requested Union Minister Nitin Gadkari to make an appearance in front of the bench. The court wanted to hear the views on transforming India’s transportation sector.

FAME stands for the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles in India. In the first phase of the scheme FAME- I, the government made an ambitious statement of converting 10,000 government owned vehicles from fuel run vehicles to electric vehicles.

A vision document highlighting the goals of the mission tried to lay a road-map on achieving the targets laid down. The ambitious project aimed at creating a demand for electric vehicles in the market and providing the requisite technology platforms to encourage manufacturers to shift from producing fuel run vehicles to vehicles that run on electricity. To ease the transition for the public a plan to create requisite infrastructure was also envisioned.

Quite the ambitious project that will change the way how India drives! This was envisioned in the year 2015.

While electric vehicles were touted as the vehicles of the future, there were issues of fuel to be addressed in the near future. A great deal of importance was attached to it. The emphasis was laid of blending of ethanol with petrol. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari at various summits and speeches expounded on the benefits of ethanol blended petrol and biodiesel. He talked about how these measures would make fuel less expensive and bring down India’s import bill. With ethanol being a by product produced from sugarcane molasses, this would blend in well with the government’s initiative of doubling the farmers’ income.

But things have hardly moved forward. The ambitious plans of plying E-buses for public transportation to manufacturing of lithium ion batteries in India to become an ancillary industry have just not taken off. The most ambitious of the lot being getting 6-7 million electric vehicles driving on Indian roads by 2020. Most of these environment friendly measures, however, just remain on paper.

More Talk. But Not Much To Show in Substance.

In the meanwhile, Nitin Gadkari at various forum has commented on India adopting greener fuels in his capacity as the Union Minister handling the portfolio of transportation. From bio aviation fuel to power airplanes to electric vehicles becoming a preferred mode of transportation, he promised the moon. Now, his speeches have caught the attention of the bench hearing a PIL on non-implementation of the vision document accompanying the first phase of FAME.

The proverb ‘Empty vessels make the most noise’ seems apt to describe the situation. Mr.Gadkari has been talking a lot about a roadmap for changing transportation but it is not visible on the road. While a lot has not been done, this situation too has a silver lining.

Recent reports in the media have highlighted the sluggish progress made in the direction of making Indian roads greener. The first intercity electric bus service between Mumbai and Pune was launched by the Union Minister on February 14. This development is seen by some as the beginning of a phased transition to electric vehicles in public transport.

To encourage the public to shift towards using hybrid or electric vehicles, the government has woken from its slumber. In July last year, the government issued invites for tenders for setting up 1000 Electric Vehicle charging stations. Carrying the momentum forward, the government in the year approved setting up of 2636 new charging stations in 62 different cities across the country.

The private sector in the transport industry is also slowly building a market around electric vehicles. Mahindra and Mahindra apart from running rickshaws and buses on electricity, it has come up with two platforms of individual transport in the e-vehicle segment. It has launched a model e2o Plus in the hatchback segment and launched an electric variant of its sedan Verito named the eVerito.

Its competitor Tata Motors is not far behind. Tata Motors has come up with a hybrid vehicle that can run either on fuel or electricity. The new model of the company Tata Tigor is being marketed for the conscious middle class as a electric vehicle that will help reduce carbon footprint.

Taking it a step further, privately owned airline too are shifting from using crude based aviation fuel to biofuel. SpiceJet in August 2018, operated India’s first biofuel powered flight from Dehradun to Delhi.

This snail paced shift towards electric vehicles is an encouraging sign. But how will the issue of vehicular pollution be tackled in the interim?

While there is the aforementioned ethanol blended petrol and biodiesel that has yet to commercially become available to the public at large, the government is pushing the automobile manufacturers to adhere to stricter fuel efficiency norms. The ministry of petroleum and natural gas has nudged the manufacturers to manufacture vehicles meeting the BS- VI ( similar to Euro VI) norms of fuel efficiency from the current year. This push has been evident since the year 2016.

The push finally has yielded results. While various automobile companies have rolled new models that comply with the BS VI standards, the fuel complying with those standards was not available at petrol pumps. The government has recently reiterated that BS VI compliant fuel will be available at petrol pumps from April 1, 2020.

These green shoots that are sprouting are a cause for cheer. A plan that was first envisioned in 2015 is now seeing the light of the day in 2020. The ambitious targets set by the roadmap under FAME phase I have not materialised in its entirety. State governments are reluctant to embrace this change. In light of this backdrop, is this overhaul of the Indian transport sector keeping up to challenge of curbing pollution and tackling the effects of climate change effectively ? That is for us to ponder.

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