An easy mode to travel, but safety comes first

Three people suffocated to death and nearly 10 were injured when a fire broke out in a building in Shahdara recently. Short circuit in an e-rickshaw, which was being charged along with a dozen more, allegedly instigated the fire which then spread to other e-rickshaws and the building.

E-rickshaws made an unpredicted entry on the streets of Delhi in 2012 and became popular for first and last mile connectivity, especially to and from metro stations. The explosive growth that they witnessed in a matter of few months made them a cause of concern for the authorities who had no clue on how to regulate them. It was here that the Delhi Government roped in TERI to suggest measures to tackle its rapid growth.

Details revealed that there was a complete lack of knowledge on how and where the e-rickshaws were being manufactured/assembled, about the technology being used to manufacture them, and how these vehicles entered the transport market in such a big way without any approval or regulation. No Government entity was regulating these passenger mobility vehicles. Reason being: Lack of clarity whether e-rickshaws were motor vehicles or not.

Extensive technical tests and surveys carried by TERI to understand these modes found that the tested e-rickshaws did not meet the criteria for exemption under the Central Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989, (CMVR) and fell under the category of motor vehicles. In its recommendation TERI said that in order to categorically establish whether they are motor vehicles or not, tests as recommended in the CMVR should be carried out by the authorised testing agencies.

After this study and much of the work that was carried out by different agencies, it was decided to bring the e-rickshaws under the purview of the Motor Vehicles Act; e-rickshaws and e-carts were notified as separate categories of transport vehicles. Registration of e-rickshaws, license and public service vehicle badges for the drivers and certification of e-rickshaw models by an authorised agency were made mandatory. Safety standards that were notified, required these vehicles to adhere to the standards for 'construction and functional safety of battery operated vehicles' and 'traction batteries used in battery operated vehicles'.

With all these changes, it was expected that e-rickshaws would give safer rides on roads, but the Shahdara incident has raised doubts if we have realised the objectives of formulating these regulations.

One critical thing that was found in the TERI study was that the components and processes used in the manufacturing of e-rickshaws were not standardised and, therefore, the performance of e-rickshaws showed varied results.

It was highlighted that, if the transport department recommends type approval of e-rickshaws, it should find a way to ensure standardisation of e-rickshaws, so that the e-rickshaw fleet has similar properties as the type approved model. It is always possible to assemble a perfect e-rickshaw, which subscribes to all standards and to get a go-ahead from the testing agency. Whether all the models finally sold in the market subscribe to the standards remains a key question. The issue raises an important point regarding accountability of manufacturer and not just the owner of the vehicle in case of incidents like fire in Shahdara.

Another key concern that was raised was with regard to parking and charging infrastructure, an issue that Shahdara incident has reinstated as a grey area. It was found that during night, 78 per cent of the surveyed e-rickshaws were parked at homes and much of charging happened at homes.

Clearly, most charging was illegal and necessary safeguards were not in place. The issue seems to have been ignored and charging of e-rickshaws remains an area that needs safe and legal answers.

E-rickshaws undoubtedly are providing an important mobility service for short distance travel in Delhi and NCR, which is both clean and affordable. This, however, doesn't imply that we ignore several aspects of e-rickshaw vehicle design and charging of batteries by just formulating regulations/safety standards that may be solving only a very tiny share of the problem.

Any transport service employed for public use should not compromise on the safety and security of the passengers. Regulating the manufacturing of these vehicles to bring about standardisation and uniformity in designs, is a must. A strategy needs to be charted out to regulate charging of these vehicles in a safe and legal manner.