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OPINION | Why Gurugram needs to keep an eye on the national capital’s electric bus experiment

A World Health Organization’s study estimates that nine out of every 10 people in the world breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants.

columns Updated: Mar 13, 2019 07:57 IST
Amit Bhatt
Amit Bhatt
Electric bus trial runs have been happening in India for a long time now. Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and many other cities have run a couple of electric buses.
Electric bus trial runs have been happening in India for a long time now. Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and many other cities have run a couple of electric buses. (HT File Photo)
         

A couple of weeks ago the central government announced the second round of Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (hybrid) and Electric Vehicles in India, also known as FAME 2. Last week, electric mobility got another impetus as Delhi government issued the tender for procuring the operation of 375 electric buses out of a total of the promised 1,000 e-buses.

A World Health Organization’s study estimates that nine out of every 10 people in the world breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. This results in a premature death of over 70 lakh people every year. Air pollution is a major issue in India’s cities and towns, but more notoriously in the northern part of the country. The recent data suggested that Gurugram is the most polluted city while the National Capital Region (NCR) has emerged as the most polluted region in the world in 2018.

It has been widely reported that motor vehicles contribute around 30% of PM 2.5 concentration in the NCR. Therefore, both the announcements are good news for urban India. However, it is Delhi’s electric bus experiment that can create a transformational impact. Let me explain why I say so.

Creating a sizeable pilot project

Electric bus trial runs have been happening in India for a long time now. Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and many other cities have run a couple of electric buses. But the biggest electric bus fleet operation in the country is happening in Himachal Pradesh. Himachal State Road Transport Corporation (HSRTC) runs a dozen electric buses from Manali to Rohtang Pass. The number of buses will go up by 25.

It is estimated that around 30,000 buses run in our cities as public transportation system. Therefore, running a couple of dozen buses will not make any tangible change in the public transport system of the country. However, Delhi’s approach for having a fleet of 1,000 electric buses is big enough to create a change. In fact, if operational, this will be the largest fleet of electric buses in the world after China.

Figuring out the procurement model

Delhi government’s tender is not about buying buses but procuring the operation of electric buses. This means selected bidder will have to bring in the buses, operate and maintain it for the specified period. Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) decided to cancel a similar tender for Bangalore. The agency, as reported in the media, is looking to buy buses instead of getting the operations. This is where Delhi has got its procurement model right. Let me explain why. Transport companies in India traditionally buy buses and operate them. This works well with the conventional diesel or CNG buses because the entire ecosystem, including manpower, workshops, and other facilities, are built around them. Electric bus is all together a different ball game. Therefore, it is important that public agencies should do what suits them best, i.e. planning and monitoring. The operation and maintenance can be left to manufactures or operators. This is where Delhi gets it right.

Removing the fear of a new technology

A bulk of the electric vehicles (EVs) are manufactured as well as consumed in China. In fact, the electric bus space is totally dominated by the Chinese manufacturers.

However, there are fears and rightly so, around how these vehicles will perform in our conditions, especially when temperatures in the summers touch around 50 degrees Celsius. There are also operation challenges like our bus systems are subjected to huge overloading.

Also, the EV technology is evolving and therefore, we still don’t know how the vehicles will perform in our conditions, say five to seven years down the line. Besides, the charging of vehicles and its impact on the local grid is also an issue that has been quoted a number of times. Therefore, the 1,000 e-bus project in Delhi will surely provide tangible answers to these questions and hopefully, help alienate fears around this new technology.

It is estimated that there are around 16 to 17 lakh buses in India. The majority of them run on highly polluting diesel engines. CNG buses did offer a better choice but their deployment has suffered due to lack of CNG availability in cities. Electric buses, on the other hand, offer a cleaner, healthier and cost-effective alternative.

The fuel is not a problem while the source is still coal-based and not green but the rapid rise in renewables is helping in cleaning the electricity.

However, for electric buses to scale up we need working examples and Delhi has taken a step forward. This is also a learning for Gurugram, as the city tries to develop its public transport system.

In fact, Gurugram has greater opportunity. In addition to buses, it can also look at changing the highly polluting diesel auto rickshaws into electric ones. The combination of buses and auto rickshaws can help it remove the infamous tag of the most polluting city in the world.

(Amit Bhatt is the director- integrated transport, WRI India)

First Published: Mar 13, 2019 07:57 IST

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