Last week, Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari pulled off a political coup when he declared that all electric-rickshaws — the new, untamed, yet very popular mode of transport on Delhi roads — are fully legal.
He told a gathering of at least one lakh e-rickshaw owners, dealers and drivers — mostly new migrants and a potential big vote bank — that they were out of the ambit of the Motor Vehicles Act, which regulates the movement of all motorised vehicles on Delhi roads.
This meant that the e-rickshaws were safe from police and administrative crackdown. It was a big relief for not only those in the business but also for lakhs of citizens who use e-rickshaws for their daily commute. In the absence of last-mile connectivity linking Metro and bus stations to one’s destination, e-rickshaws have become an affordable transport for commuters.
But a legal status to e-rickshaws has not allayed the on-road safety concerns. Pulling it out of the ambit of Motor Vehicles Act means e-rickshaw drivers are now free to negotiate city traffic, carrying four passengers and 50 kg of luggage without any training in driving and road safety rules. The traffic police and transport department can’t insist that these drivers get a driving licence or a public service badge, which all other motorised public carrier drivers must have, because this vast fleet of vehicles is no longer under their control.
Under the new Deen Dayal e-rickshaw scheme, the duties of regulations, if any, are now to be carried out by the municipal corporations because they manage cycle-rickshaws. The civic bodies plan to issue identity cards for `100 to e-rickshaw drivers after they give a declaration that they will not violate traffic rules. The colour-coding on the card will indicate which zones they operate in. But apart from administrative paperwork, the municipal officials have neither the expertise nor the wherewithal to handle the road safety aspect of e-rickshaws.
From the beginning, the emergence of e-rickshaws has been an exercise in mismanagement. When they proliferated on the Delhi’s cityscape, nobody was looking. Since battery-operated rickshaws do not come under the government’s regulatory mechanism, they needed no permits or fitness certificates.
But in no time, they became a traffic nuisance. Unlicensed and uncontrolled, their drivers started flouting road safety norms. With heavy duty batteries, these fragile, wobbly machines, assembled from Chinese-made parts, were also driven faster than they were designed to be.
And they were an instant hit with commuters who previously had very few affordable public transport options. For a polluted, vehicle-choked Delhi, battery-operated rickshaws could have been a great green alternative if the authorities hadn’t allowed it to slip under the radar. But it is never too late for following good practices.
In January this year, Tripura became the first and the only Indian state to make rules regulating e-rickshaws. The government amended its Rickshaw Regulation Act to include e-rickshaws or tomtoms as they are locally called. Now, all e-rickshaw drivers must get their vehicles registered. The registration mark, like number plates, has to be displayed on the e-rickshaws.
Also, one has to be at least 20 years old to apply for a licence and clear a driving test. The applicants have to be tested on their knowledge of lane driving, vehicle overtaking rules, traffic signals, pedestrian crossings etc. The law also lays down stipulations for the fitness of the vehicle, sets the speed limit of 15 kmph, and makes it mandatory for all e-rickshaws to have speed governors. It even assigns special parking and halting stations within the city.
The Tripura law could be a template for Delhi as it regularises more than two lakh e-rickshaws. This is not just about safeguarding livelihood of a few lakh investors, dealers and drivers or helping the city’s choked lungs. The authorities must also ensure that Delhi’s notorious roads do not become a bigger nightmare.