A friend once called rickshaw a Sukher Bhela (Raft of happiness). A whole lot of poems and songs have been written on this magical home-grown vehicle that is praised for not contributing to pollution and carbon emission. It also gave birth to a colourful form of art- popularly known as rickshaw art.
Despite the romanticism surrounding the vehicle, the fact remains that it is powered by humans, and the low-speed vehicle could not keep up with the fast growing economy’s new found love for speed.
In 2010, Beevatech Limited started motorising rickshaws with imported electric motor parts to kick-start an evolution of the age-old vehicle that hardly saw any change in a long time.
“Beevatech started its journey with a view to reducing human labour required to pull a rickshaw,” said Saidur Rahman, the managing director of the company.
Although motorisation of rickshaws continues to date, it is done by numerous other parties. Today, Beevatech has shifted its attention toward manufacturing heavier and larger electric three- and four-wheelers known as easy bikes.
Once imported from China, these vehicles are now produced at home, and many rickshaw pullers switched to these larger vehicles effectively making it look like an evolution of the domestic rickshaw industry.
“Ensuring safety while adding speed to traditional rickshaw bodies is problematic, so we started manufacturing easy bikes as an import substitution. About 70 percent parts of these vehicles – including the chassis, body, wheels and battery are made in Bangladesh by different companies. Only motor and electronic components are imported from abroad,” said Beevatech MD.
There are many such manufacturers in the country right now. And their combined work has spread the locally made electric vehicles to every corner of the country.
According to Saidur Rahman, 95 percent auto-rickshaws in the country today are locally made. Beevatech sells around 1,000 three-wheelers every month.
Asked how conducive the government policy is to growth of this industry , Saidur said, “The government had some concern regarding electricity consumption of these vehicles, but now that the country produces surplus electricity, and the recharging of the vehicles’ battery bank takes place in the off-peak hour, the government wants us to use more electricity.”
But why did this renewed position of the government not facilitate the registration of electric three-wheelers with Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA)?
The government agencies need to work in a more coordinated way, Saidur Rahman opined. He also added that local government bodies are giving local registrations to these vehicles, where they are more popular.
Electric vehicles, while operating on the road, do not pollute the atmosphere since they do not emit exhaust gas like the vehicles with internal combustion engines.
However, recharging the batteries with grid electricity that is heavily reliant on burning fossil fuel eventually contributes to carbon emission and consequent global warming.
Charging the batteries using renewable energy sources can solve this problem. Beevatech’s website boasts a solar-roofed electric rickshaw van that the company manufactured partnering with a private university and the state-run company Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL).
Saidur Rahman, however, told The Business Standard that those vehicles are not commercially viable. He said solar charging stations are a viable option for using renewable energy in this sector.
According to Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA), there are 14 privately funded solar charging stations in the country with a total capacity of 0.278 MW.
Mentioning the potential of EVs, the managing director of Beevatech said, “In neighbouring India and Nepal, the governments are encouraging electric vehicles.”
The Nepalese cabinet in 2020 decided to reduce the taxes on electric vehicles by 25 percent to 80 percent depending on the capacity of the vehicles.
Indian government in 2019 earmarked Rs10,000 crore subsidy for a scheme to facilitate faster adoption and manufacturing of electric vehicles.
State Government of Delhi also formulated an Electric Vehicle Policy, targeting to have 25 percent of all new vehicle registrations to be EVs with a view to reducing air pollution.
When implemented, Delhi government will provide an incentive of up to Rs30,000 per vehicle. Besides, registration fee and road tax for EVs will be scrapped.
Among other measures, about 200 battery charging stations will be set up by the government.
In Bangladesh, the home-grown EV industry is fighting an uphill battle facing frequent bans. BRTA does not issue registration, route permit, or fitness certificates to these vehicles.
The market for this kind of EVs in Bangladesh however is quite big. According to a joint study conducted by The Asia Foundation and Rahimafrooz Solar, there were 10 lakh easy bikes in the country in 2017, which carried 2.5 crore passengers every day. The market for easy-bikes was worth nearly Tk17,500 crore, the study said.
“This industry is huge. The government is getting a lot of VAT and other taxes from it, the public is being benefited, and we, too are making profit,” said Saidur.
So how does he plan to survive in a world with fast electric cars from top automobile companies?
“You can build many things, but making it commercially viable in a particular place is a different thing. Investors and banks will come forward when a business is viable. You have to consider your end-customers: who they are, what they want,” concluded Saidur Rahman.