Delhi boards e-bus in pursuit of clean air
Delhi's e-bus transition, despite its financial, infrastructure, and human challenges, serves as a template for other Indian cities battling air pollution.
One of the unmissable sights from the recently concluded G20 summit was the Delhi government’s fleet of sparkling blue electric buses (e-buses), proudly ferrying guests as well as TV anchors, showcasing the city’s makeover ahead of the mega summit.
But unlike the thousands of posters and potted plants that dotted the national Capital only for the summit, Delhi’s fleet of e-buses represents a lasting investment made by the Arvind Kejriwal government to battle the chronic air pollution that affects not just the national Capital but much of northern India.
Last week itself, Delhi added 400 new e-buses to its fleet, making it a total of 800 so far. In doing so, Delhi reached a major milestone in its journey of becoming India’s Electric Vehicle (EV) capital. Delhi now has more e-buses than any other Indian city.
The next two years will see a massive 10x expansion in Delhi’s e-bus fleet from 800 to 8,000, a feat that has few parallels globally. From a total of 7,135 buses at present (11% electric), Delhi’s public bus fleet is targeted to reach 10,480 buses by 2025, 8,280 of which will be electric (almost 80%). This will catapult Delhi to become the city with the largest e-bus fleet in the world outside China.
Delhi’s ambitious e-bus transition plan will make a significant dent in air pollution as well as CO2 emissions. A fleet of 8,280 e-buses will eliminate 4.7 lakh tonnes of CO2 emissions annually, and 56 lakh tonnes of CO2 emissions in their lifetime of 12 years.
The scale and pace of Delhi’s e-bus transition plan weren’t trivial and came with its fair share of challenges. The first was financial. Electric buses are twice as expensive as CNG buses in terms of their upfront cost, largely due to expensive batteries, but they are cheaper to run. A fleet of 8,280 e-buses meant an investment of over ₹3,000 crore annually by the Delhi government or ₹36,000 crore over 12 years. It was crucial that the Delhi government did this without diluting its commitment to provide free public transport to 40% of its passengers — women.
The next challenge was upgrading Delhi’s bus depots and electricity grid infrastructure. Delhi’s 8,280 e-buses are estimated to increase Delhi’s energy demand by 450MW by 2025. This needs careful planning to ensure no power outages or grid failures. A wide network of 57 existing bus depots spanning every corner of Delhi had to be electrified, 13 new bus depots built from scratch and the electricity grid upgraded at a cost of ₹1,500 crore.
Yet another challenge was human. Thousands of staff in Delhi’s public transport authorities, used to running CNG buses for the last two decades, had to be retrained and reoriented to run a fully e-bus fleet. These are also the most advanced bus fleets anywhere in India with fully AC low-floor buses, automated drives, CCTV cameras, panic buttons, disabled-friendly features and live tracking through a central command centre. These challenges were surmounted thanks to a resolute leadership that has made fighting air pollution by investing in clean and green public transport among its foremost political priorities.
Delhi’s emergence as India’s EV capital is a result of years of careful planning and execution. The journey began with the announcement of the landmark Delhi EV Policy in August 2020 by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. The policy is widely acknowledged as the most progressive EV policy by any state or Union Territory (UT) in India. Delhi became the first state or UT to set out an explicit mandate of ensuring 25% of all new vehicle registrations are EVs by 2024.
This was followed by another bold public commitment in 2021 when the Delhi government announced that all its future public bus procurements would be e-buses. Despite the gravity of the air pollution crisis facing dozens of Indian cities, Delhi was, in 2021, and still is, the only Indian city to make such an explicit commitment. It is also the only Indian city to join a select league of global cities such as London, Paris and Los Angeles driving the climate crisis agenda by making a public commitment of fully transitioning to zero-emission public transport. Delhi’s progress in achieving a zero-emissions public transport goal through a mix of firm political leadership, public commitments to goals and years of sound financial and infrastructure planning offers a template for all Indian cities battling air pollution. And there are many. India has 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world as per the 2022 rankings of IQ Air.
Unfortunately, many Indian states and cities continue to underinvest in public transport and air pollution reduction efforts. The Centre too can step up and offer substantial financial support to cities making a time-bound transition plan to zero-emissions public transport. Yet, so far, the Centre has offered minuscule financial support to cities investing in clean public transport. The Centre’s FAME scheme to promote EVs provides a small subsidy to 7,000 e-buses nationally over five years (2019-24), only half of which have been deployed as of date. In Delhi’s case, the Centre’s subsidy will be limited to only 1,320 of the targeted 8,200 e-buses, and that too for 10% of their lifetime costs. Delhi’s example offers hope that individual states and cities can step up by marshalling their own resources to provide their citizens with the most precious of rights – the right to breathe clean air.
Jasmine Shah is vice-chairperson, Dialogue and Development Commission of Delhi. The views expressed are personal