The bumpy road to change

Governmental support is essential to create an enabling eco-system for electric vehicles

The launch of the Mahindra Reva electric city car at India Gate in New Delhi last month is one of the more positive developments on the energy front in recent years. It holds the possibility that in time, and with the right level of support from the government, we may find a sustainable solution to our energy and environmental crisis. My optimism does not flow from the launch of the product itself. That, in itself, is not remarkable. Electric cars are not a novelty. It flows from what the product embodies. The e20 is an indigenous creation. It has been built in Bangalore by combining the innovation and engineering precision of individual technologists with the design capabilities and resources of an automotive conglomerate.

I am a non-executive independent director of Mahindra and Mahindra and I thought hard before writing this article. I was hesitant because of the concern that I might be accused of bias. I decided to write it notwithstanding, because this article is not about the e20. It is about the message that even the most intractable of our problems in this case the unhealthily strong connection between economic growth, energy demand and environmental degradation can be sustainably tackled if and when technology, entrepreneurship, organisation and resources are brought together in a judicious and compatible mix. And the equally important message that the support of the government is an essential prerequisite for achieving scale and impact.

The demand for energy is surging and the environment is under stress. A major reason is the increase in motorised traffic and the absence of credible substitutes for petrol and diesel as transportation fuels. The petroleum companies and automobile manufacturers have done much to "green" these fuels and engines, but vehicular pollution remains a major environmental concern. The launch of the e20 is significant because it confirms that there are no structural or technological impediments to the development of an indigenous and sustainable mobility alternative. Whether such an alternative is realised or not depends, therefore, not on breaking new ground, but on how effectively the technical, innovative and resource capabilities of the private sector are conjoined with the strengths of the government. It depends on the robustness of the public-private partnership and the nature of the policy environment.

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