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Charge of the e-brigade

Last mile connectivity can be vastly improved if e-rickshaw drivers do not have to scout around for points where they can charge their vehicles, and get exploited in the process

In the evening rush hour, when the Mayur Vihar Metro station in east Delhi sees the heaviest influx of commuters, electric rickshaws line up alongside the main road. They are lined up one after the other to pick 4-5 passengers, and jet off to the destination. They have been shuttling since morning and will continue to do till late night.

Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), as we know it, offers robust connectivity with a network spread over 389 km, including 22.70 km of Airport Express Line. It serves 285 stations within its network, with one train following close on the heels of another.

While Metro connectivity has flourished over the years, last mile connectivity was still a major problem at most stations. Passengers either opted for cycle rickshaws or took DTC buses to cover the last mile to their homes. With the introduction of e-rickshaws in the Capital city, the last mile became less of a problem, and passengers rejoiced.

With over a lakh e-rickshaws in Delhi, and 10 lakh across the country, these e-rickshaws continue to ply on lanes around Metro stations. However, they lack one big support system —charging stations. In fact, Delhi got its first electric vehicle charging station only in June.

For Pramod Shah, 50, an e-rickshaw driver, things haven’t changed much besides relieved of the physical stamina required to pedal a cycle-rickshaw in 2017. In July, he bought an e-rickshaw for Rs 55,000 from a local dealer, and has been plying in the Mayur Vihar area of east Delhi ever since he bought the vehicle.

“Earlier I used to charge it (the vehicle) at home, but then the landlord told me that that he will charge double the price per unit because I didn’t tell him before buying the e-rickshaw. I already pay the bill for my household of eight people, and now to pay double separately for the vehicle did not make much sense,” says Shah.

Befriending the other e-rickshaw drivers, Shah came to know that they were either charging up their vehicles at home, by connecting the battery with another wire, and leaving it overnight, or by paying a set amount to the shopkeepers.

However, Shah didn’t want to spend a single extra penny, because “anyway the earnings are so low, the cost to run the vehicle everyday would have cost me more than what I would earn.”

He decided that he will look for other avenues to charge the vehicle which takes upto 7-8 units to run 8-10 hours per day. He tried negotiating with the landlord, but had no luck in his case, and managed by paying a local person who let his vehicle charge at his home.

“I started paying him Rs 100 each day. He would let me park my vehicle and leave it to charge overnight. I thought I’ve finally cracked it,” said Shah.

This adjustment worked fine between both the gentlemen for five to six months, until in 2019, right after New Year’s Eve, Shah was told that now he would have to pay Rs 150 for one day and also come at a fixed time or loose a spot.

The other guy had made it into a business and would allot 6-7 e-rickshaws in the area a parking space and charging facility. To this day, Shah and his 5-6 friends take their e-rickshaws at 11 in the night to the provider’s home and charge their vehicles, to earn the next day.

“Almost every day, I don’t get my vehicle fully charged and have to calculate the trips so that I can run the vehicle during peak hours. Else it’s more like roaming around than getting some earnings,” says Shah gloomily.

Last month, DMRC had filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court, to seek approval for registration of 15,000 e-rickshaws to provide last-mile connectivity from its 184 metro stations across the city. Existing ones are not enough to service its vast network.

DMRC also identified 38 stations out of 126 in its oldest running — Phase I and II — networks as the most congested and called for immediate changes in multi-modal integration.

While the sales of e-rickshaws growing 20% annually since 2015, they are replacing the existing cycle rickshaws. They may be unorganised and sometimes unlicensed, but Delhi needs their services.

SmartE, a Gurugram based e-rickshaw mobility service, with over 1,000 vehicles, is the first organised service, which currently serves more than 20 metro stations in Delhi-NCR with six charging hubs currently operational.

The service has a contract with DMRC to place its fleet in prime locations. The green coloured vehicles in its fleet are custom manufactured, equipped with GPS and a CCTV camera too, for safety. While these e-rickshaw drivers enjoy the support of a strong backup, drivers from the unorganised sector of the service continue to struggle with everyday charging issues.

Sarika Panda Bhatt, Head, Integrated Transport and Road Safety at World Resources Institute (WRI) says, “There has to be a policy in place for these e-rickshaw drivers which should also look into concessions for these drivers. In case of accident too, I don’t think they get any medical facility.”

“There’s a need to install charging stations across existing bus depots, petrol pumps, CNG stations and Metro stations too. These drivers also live in areas where there’s no proper power supply. The kind of charging point they’re using are not reliable,” said Bhatt.

In Kalkaji area too, many e-rickshaw drivers rely on the power supply provided at their home. Raju Pant, who was earlier running cycle rickshaw, has been driving an e-rickshaw for six months now.

“Business is anyway low. I see my vehicle getting full only during peak hours. For the rest of the time, we are either sitting idle or taking one or two passengers to their home,” said Pant.

Pant said that he has fought with his landlord many a time, because “he doesn’t let me fully charge the vehicle and keeps on checking the battery level. When I’m going to pay for each unit, what’s the issue? When there are so many petrol pumps in the city, why can’t they also build at least one station to charge e-rickshaws?” asks Pant.

At ITO metro station, Hurshid Khan, 49, was also seen sitting idle with no customers during afternoon time. He says that he pays Rs 300 per day as rent for the vehicle. “I earn around Rs 400-500 per day, more than half of it goes in paying rent. Rest you can calculate,” said Khan.

Khan said that since it’s not his rickshaw, he doesn’t have to look after the charging process and the owner charges the vehicle at his home. Khan just plies the vehicle on the ITO Metro station to Mata Sundari College route every day.

While SmartE is looking to extend its services across 50 metro stations in Delhi-NCR, drivers from the unorganised sector continue to charge their vehicles either at their homes or keep looking for better options on a regular basis.

This is when the central government has already indicated that conventional (internal combustion engine-based) three-wheelers could be phased out from 2023. The country continues to be a stronghold of three-wheelers, with a total number of 7 lakh units, as of 2019.