In what seemingly is a contrarian view on the adoption of electric vehicles in India, RC Bhargava, the chairman of Maruti Suzuki India Limited, believes that India cannot simply imitate the EV models adopted by the western world. According to Bhargava, given India’s macroeconomic landscape, electrification of vehicles will not do justice to the cause of preserving the environment, and India should look at alternative sources of eco-friendly, greener sources of fuel for its passenger vehicles. “India is very different from Europe and other western nations, including the U.S. If we just adopt whatever strategies they are following, I don’t think we will be doing justice to what we need to do in India,” he tells.
The octogenarian chairman of India’s largest passenger vehicle-maker explains that India’s per capita income is about 5% of that in Europe and 3% of the corresponding figure in the U.S. “This has direct relevance of affordability of personal transport vehicles and customer choices, when it comes to personal transportation,” he adds. The per capita income also reflects the fact that most people are compelled to use two-wheelers for personal mobility, regardless of how uncomfortable and unsafe its usage is. "We use a very large number of scooters and motorcycles in India; the number is well over 200 million. None of the countries use two-wheelers for personal mobility,” he adds. Consequently, four-wheeler penetration in India is abysmally low when juxtaposed with the west. “Car penetration in India is close to 3%, whereas in the E.U., it is over 50%, and in the U.S., it is about 87%,” Bhargava tells.
Bhargava also says that the U.S. does not use the small cars that are proliferated here, and the number in the EU is infinitesimal. “This has an impact on GHG (greenhouse gas) and the solutions which we adopt are solving the problem of global warming,” he adds. According to Bhargava, electrification of smaller cars increases cost substantially, and it would entail small car buyers—who according to him are already stretched in buying these cars—will be further dissuaded from buying an expensive, electric car. While union minister Piyush Goyal underscored the slew of incentives the Government has introduced to boost EV adoption, Bhargava maintains that despite every policy implementation, EV adoption in India is about 0.5%. “We have to consider whether EV strategy is really serving its purpose in present times in India,” he adds.
He then contextualises the existential introspection of the EV ecosystem with energy usage patterns in India. “While the installed capacity of thermal power generation is slightly above 50%, when it comes to energy use, 75% of the energy used in India is from coal-fired thermal stations. Therefore, the reduction in the greenhouse gases using electric cars becomes much less than what is generally thought electric cars in these circumstances are not clean cars at all,” he elucidates. Given these hurdles, he posits that EV adoption in India will only produce the desired effect when bigger electric cars would be used in India, and the dependency on coal-fired thermal stations is reduced drastically. However, he concedes that there really is no alternative to electrification in two-wheelers, and that should go on.
In terms of four-wheelers, however, Bhargava believes that CNG has always been an acceptable alternative to fossil fuels. However, there is no incentive for CNG vehicles. “The CNG cars are taxed exactly as the highly pollutant petrol and diesel vehicles,” he avers. He believes that using bio-CNG, which is carbon negative, can be an alternative to electrification, as it suits the Indian conditions. “The amount of waste we generate, agricultural or otherwise, has immense potential in generating biofuels,” he says, adding that it has to happen via a programme well-supported by the government, and not done in haste at the local level. “It has to be done with the same priority, if not higher, as the EV programme,” he adds.
He adds that electrification of the Indian automobile market will take 10-15 years to achieve the desired effect, and in the interim, India should work on CNG, bio-CNG, ethanol, along with hybrid vehicles, to reduce carbon emissions. He also highlights that India has no reserves for lithium and cobalt, which is required in EVs—in batteries or for energy storage. “The strategic and economic long-term impact of importing these materials in large quantities to support energy needs makes it even more compelling to look at other sources of energy,” he explains, adding that the Government needs to pursue the green hydrogen routes further as well.