How electric cycle rickshaws are driving the e-mobility boom in West Bengal

Abhishek Law Kolkata | Updated on October 30, 2019

A battery-operated cycle rickshaw in Jadavpur, a south Kolkata locality. Locally assembled, and without any registration number or a licence, these battery-operated vehicles cost around Rs 50,000 and are fast replacing the conventional, pedalled cycle-rickshaws in localities in and around Kolkata and on its fringes. Battery-powered cycle rickshaws are less strenuous for drivers to operate and enable them to make more trips. Photo: Debasish Bhaduri   -  BusinessLine

India is home to 15-lakh battery-powered three-wheel rickshaws. Photo: Debasish Bhaduri   -  BusinessLine

The e-rickshaw segment is growing anywhere between 10-20 per cent per annum in India, with unorganised players, mostly small local assembly ones, ruling the roost. Photo: Debasish Bhaduri   -  BusinessLine

E-rickshaws have begun proliferating in Kolkata and other parts of the State, giving e-mobility a boost

A silent electric vehicle revolution is playing out in suburban West Bengal, within Kolkata city and on its fringes. At the forefront of this revolution is the now ubiquitous e-rickshaw. Alongside it is the battery-operated version of the ‘desi’ cycle-rickshaw, a breed that is growing in number by the day.

This home-grown version resembles the pedal-powered cycle-rickshaws of yore; but instead of pedals, they run on rechargeable lead-acid batteries. The retrofitted ‘e-cycle rickshaws’ come with an accelerator, a headlight, a tail-light, indicators, and even wind-shields (in some cases).

These e-rickshaws dot the narrow suburban roads of tier-II and tier-III towns in Bengal; in Kolkata city and on its fringes (especially areas such as Salt Lake and southern parts such as Kasba, Dhakuria, Garia, and so on) both e-rickshaws and battery-operated cycle rickshaws are gaining ground.

Growing number

Market sources say that India is home to 1.5 million (15 lakh) battery-powered three-wheel rickshaws (totos, tuk-tuks or e-rickshaws as they are commonly called) with the majority operating in Bengal, Bihar, the North Eastern states, National Capital Region, Uttar Pradesh, and parts of Madhya Pradesh.

The exact number of battery-operated cycle-rickshaws and their growth cannot be determined. But, according to a West Bengal Transport Department official, a number of pedalled cycle-rickshaw owners have already switched to battery operated ones in parts of Kolkata and in the satellite township of Salt Lake.

The e-rickshaw segment is growing anywhere between 10-20 per cent per annum in India, with unorganised players, mostly small local assembly ones, ruling the roost. While organised players have been adding 1,000-1,500 vehicles a month, the unorganised companies have been producing about 10,000 vehicles in the same period.

People have also taken to accepting these new generation e-vehicles, especially given their affordability.

Supplanting autorickshaws and cycle-rickshaws

In the sub-urban town of Baidyabati — some 40 km from Kolkata — battery-operated three-wheel rickshaws, pedalled cycle-rickshaws and the traditional auto-rickshaws were at one point competing with one another for passengers. This involved travelling around a 2-3 kilometre stretch of the Grand Trunk Road (that connects Kolkata and its suburbs) to the local railway station or nearby localities. Narrow roads meant these smaller vehicles were the only ones offering last-mile connectivity.

E-rickshaws were the cheapest ride, with a ‘pool’ service (one e-rickshaw being shared by four people) costing a minimum of ₹10 a person. Auto-rickshaws charged₹12 and cycle-rickshaws ₹20 for the same ride. Things came to such a pass that auto-rickshaw unions took to the streets protesting that e-rickshaws or ‘totos’ were eating into their business.

The administration then came up with a please-all solution saying that e-rickshaws and autos would have separate routes and that one would not encroach on the other’s domain.

“It is much easier for me to buy a Toto (battery-operated e-rickshaw) than an auto. My recoveries are faster,” says 35-year-old Bablu Das of Baidyabati. He, of course, purchased a locally assembled one as this was much cheaper than the “branded ones”.

For instance, in Salt Lake, to the north eastern end of the city, battery-operated cycle rickshaws have many takers. Users say it is a more comfortable ride than their predecessors – the pedalled versions. The fares remain the same.

For the e-cycle rickshaw owners, it is a less tiring ride now. They can make more trips. Charging (the batteries) comes cheap and the cost is easily recovered from the extra trips they make.

Passengers, too, are happy. “Getting in a Toto was more easy, especially when it involved travelling to nearby localities that had narrow roads. Cycle-rickshaw rides were bumpy and uncomfortable while autos had to be “pre-booked”, says Kajal Das, a resident of Baidyabati. “Even though we also had to pre-book Totos, it was a much more comfortable ride and came cheaper on a per-person basis.”

Organised players coming in

India legalised e-rickshaws in 2015, but the embrace towards electric mobility has been haphazard. Chinese assembled kits and local assemblers dominated the market. That situation continues to prevail even today.

But, as the vehicles’ popularity has grown, Indian companies have tweaked the original Chinese designs. New brands have emerged and they have their own ecosystem of parts suppliers, neighbourhood parking lots and charging points.

Mahindra and Mahindra (M&M) was among the first players to enter this segment. Others, such as Kinetic and TVS, have also now entered it. The latest to enter the category is been the country’s leading automotive battery-maker, Exide Industries. The company launched its e-rickshaws earlier in October.

According to market sources, vehicle makers from the organised sector in the 3-wheeler category already have a diesel or LPG operated offering. So it was natural that they would initially be hesitant to get into a category that would cannibalise their own products or be in direct competition with their existing offerings.

“Also, the e-rickshaw initially entered the country through the unorganised sector. These players therefore had a first-mover advantage. In fact, initially it was an illegal product in most markets. Naturally, the organised sector adopted a wait-and-watch policy and entered only when the segment started showing signs of maturity,” an Exide spokesperson said in an e-mailed response.

M&M did not respond to an email by BusinessLine.

Price Difference

The e-rickshaws made by organised players come at a premium of 15-20 per cent over those made by their unorganised counterparts.

Market sources say an assembled e-rickshaw is priced at ₹75,000-₹1,00,000 (depending on accessories and quality of battery), while organised players have vehicles beginning at ₹1,00,000.

“In any category the organised sector is priced higher and over a period of time it has been found that customer preference generally shifts towards organised or branded products. The market for assembled computers, vis-à-vis branded ones, can be considered as a case study,” the Exide spokesperson said.

The company’s spokesperson pointed out that while imported batteries are cheaper, they have a very low service life. E-rickshaw operators cannot afford a long down-time. “The frequent breakdown of the cheaper variety is a leading reason why operators are now paying a premium to get a better battery,” he said.

The organised players are also hopeful that as the requirement for RTO registration of battery-operated vehicles becomes mandatory (and is implemented), more unorganised players will comply with the norms; thereby making it a level playing field.

There are 130,000 e-rickshaws in Bengal. Of these 100,000 are registered with Regional Transport Offices. The rest, say officials, are plying without registration.

In fact, organised players are also looking to push vehicles that run on a lithium-powered battery rather than a lead-acid battery. These make the offerings costlier. Exide, for instance. is already working on a lithium-ion battery at its plant in Gujarat and plans are afoot to have a lithium-ion battery-run e-rickshaw soon. M&M, on its part, already has the Treo.

Published on October 30, 2019

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