Last week, the Delhi government decided to suspend the subsidy it gives to buyers of electric vehicles in the case of the Nexon EV manufactured by Tata Motors. Delhi’s Transport Minister Kailash Gahlot tweeted: “Delhi govt has decided to suspend subsidy on a EV car model, pending final report of a Committee, due to complaints by multiple users of sub-standard range performance. We r (sic) committed to support EVs, but not at the cost of trust & confidence of citizens in claims by manufacturers.”

The move followed a complaint by a user that the vehicle never gave a range of more than 200 kilometres on a full charge, as against the range of 312 km claimed by the manufacturer. The suspension may not significantly dampen Nexon’s sales — at upwards of 2,500 units last year, it is by far the largest selling electric car in India — but will make a good difference to a buyer in Delhi, since the subsidy was ₹10,000 per kWh — the Nexon has a 30.2 kWh pack — as well as waiver of road tax and registration charges.

Tata Motors is understandably peeved. “It is unfortunate to receive this order from the Delhi Transport Commission. We will continue to engage constructively to protect the interests of our customers. The Nexon EV is the only personal segment EV available in the market today that meets the stringent FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacture of Hybrid and EV) norms. The range at single full charge (312 km) for the Nexon EV is the basis of the certification received from the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI), which is the official body that independently tests all mass-produced vehicles under standard/defined test conditions before they can be offered to customers,” the company said in a statement.

That was the official position. Unofficially, conspiracy theories abound, including dirty tricks by competitors, conspiracy by the fossil fuel lobby, corruption at the top and the like. All of which may well have more than a grain of truth in them.

But the industry would be making a big mistake to view this entirely as a motivated attack for ulterior reasons. In my view, the Delhi government’s action should serve as a wake up call to spring clean our entire standards and certifications systems across the board, and not just for automobiles.

‘Mileage’ claims

Take the ARAI certifications. I have been driving a car for more than three decades and at some time or the other have driven cars manufactured by virtually every major Indian manufacturer in this period (in the janata class of course — luxury marques are beyond me!).

Not even once have I managed to get anything close to the claimed (ARAI-certification based) mileage advertised by the manufacturer. Nor do I know anyone who has managed to consistently get the claimed mileage on any type of vehicle, diesel, petrol, hybrid or electric. Unlike in the West, where auto makers have to give average city and highway mileage separately, the ARAI gives one certification “under test conditions” which an ordinary user cannot replicate. The point is, this has been the practice for years and no one — consumers or government authorities — have seen fit to question this. Now that subsidy monies are involved, some action has happened.

This is a good thing. Holding both manufacturers and certifiers to account for their claims will stand industry, the consumer and above all the economy, in good stead in the long run. Industry, because genuine quality certifications are trusted much more by consumers (remember the crash test row over safety of Indian cars?). Consumers obviously benefit. And by actually holding to and implementing global standards, manufacturers can tap enhanced export markets, and do not have to run dual (domestic and ‘export quality’) manufacturing lines.

Take BIS quality standards. Now India was one of the early adopters of quality and standards certification and the Bureau of Indian Standards, which originally started as the Indian Standards Institution, actually kicked off during the final year of colonial rule and predates Independence. What’s more, it is actually under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, so its consumer protection role is paramount.

Over the years though, the BIS has failed to deliver. It is a toothless body with very little enforcement power. As a result, while we have BIS marks for everything from packaged water to power plants, the market is mostly flooded with either uncertified products, or outright fakes. A 2019 survey by Nielsen across 40 retail outlets in the country found that found 47 per cent of LED bulb brands and 52 per cent of LED downlighter brands in the market were fake, manufactured illegally (mostly from Chinese kits) and with fake BIS marks. As much as 76 per cent of LED bulbs did not meet safety standards.

Lax enforcement

Enforcement is abysmal. The BIS website lists judgments with paltry fines ranging from ₹5,000 to ₹1 lakh, whereas the Act says that up to a year’s turnover of an errant firm can be collected as fine and promoters can be imprisoned for up to a year.

Industry, on the other hand — especially the compliant ones — lists its testing and certification process, which can take years in some cases, as a major roadblock. Add to that the cost of compliance — testing and certification fees, which can be quite steep for small players. And the fact that institutionally, nothing has been done to build the BIS brand globally. Consumers anywhere are prepared to accept German or Japanese standards as being of the highest quality, but not Indian, which impairs their ability to penetrate non-tariff barriers in other countries.

Contrast this with China, where the China Compulsory Certification (CCC) and China Quality Certification (CQC) are used as entry barriers for overseas manufacturers seeking to tap the Chinese markets, while the government actively works with industry to ensure that the reverse does not happen and Chinese exports do not get blocked on quality grounds.

If ‘Make in India’ is to succeed, ‘Made in India’ has to stand for the best in the world. For that to happen, our testing, standards and certification systems need to be overhauled and aligned with overall policy objectives.

To borrow an idea from Rahul Gandhi, it is high time India had a Ministry for Standards and Certification.

The writer is a former Editor of BusinessLine