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Charge: India in ambitious drive for all cars to be electric by 2030

The Times, 8 January 2017
Facing a lobby group of Indian carmakers last autumn, Nitin Gadkari did not mince his words. “We should move towards alternative fuel,” the transport minister told his audience. “I am going to do this, whether you like it or not. And I am not going to ask you. I will bulldoze it.” It turns out he is driving a bulldozer with a turbo-charged electric engine. The government has declared that India, set to be the world’s third largest car market within five years, will sell only electric vehicles by 2030.

The scheme would be ambitious for any country (Britain has set itself a target of 2040), but this is a nation of 1.3 billion people that struggles to meet its existing power needs. This is a country, too, that is wedded to low-grade diesel. There are only 5,000 electric cars on its roads. The International Energy Agency estimates that Indian drivers will need to buy more than ten million by 2030 to meet the government’s target. A booming economy might provide the incomes to deliver such demand, but India is in the grip of an economic slowdown.

Yet the need for a green revolution is not in doubt. India’s cities are among most polluted in the world, thanks in large part to traffic emissions. A recent study found that pollution in Delhi was so bad that residents would live almost six years longer if India were to meet its own air quality standards and up to nine years if the country met international benchmarks.

This health catastrophe has galvanised the government’s push on a host of green initiatives, including the target for electric cars. It estimates that going electric would cut the nation’s oil bill by about $60 billion a year and would reduce India’s carbon footprint by almost 40 per cent.

Mr Gadkari’s bulldozer has pushed the carmakers into action. Mahindra & Mahindra, which makes the only domestically built electric cars on the Indian market, has announced a partnership with Ford to expand research and development of hybrid and electric vehicles. The JSW Group is said to be in talks with Volvo for a similar partnership. Tesla, the American technology manufacturer, is eyeing entry into the Indian market.

All are looking at developing cars driven by energy stored in rechargeable batteries rather than by traditional, carbon fuel-burning engines. Vehicles vary from the smaller Nissan Leaf, built in Japan, America and at Sunderland in Britain, to sportier models made by the likes of Tesla and Rimac, of Croatia. One battery charge can have a range of 60 to 300 miles, depending on the vehicle model.

The government insists that the 2030 target will be met through demand, not by subsidies, but carmakers preparing to stake their futures on electric cars need huge investment on key infrastructure from Delhi. India has close to 60,000 petrol stations, compared with only 206 charging points for electric vehicles. Sceptics note that Mahindra’s e20 Plus, the cheapest electric car available in India today, costs about £7,000, while the cheapest petrol-powered car priced at less than half that.

Papers formalising the 2030 target could be issued by the end of the year. “We need to see a policy,” Sugato Sen, of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, said. “If electric vehicles become more economical, the market will move automatically, anyway.”