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Reuters/Shailesh Andrade
Only chaos.
BAD CARMA

The Modi government’s hyped-up mobility summit was much ado about nothing

Last week, the Indian automobile industry showed up in numbers at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan convention centre. The two-day global mobility summit, MOVE, which began there on Sept. 07, was expected to provide some clarity on the Narendra Modi government’s ambition of getting India’s electric vehicle (EV) ecosystem going in earnest.

But nothing of the sort happened.

If anything, the second phase of the national policy on Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric (FAME II) vehicles, which will likely contain a raft of incentives for the industry, remained in the shadows. Instead, the government announced a focus on subsiding batteries—EVs’ most expensive component—marking yet another pivot in its attempts to get EV plans off-the-ground in the world’s fourth-largest automotive market.

This isn’t the first time the government has changed its stance.

Last year, it announced its wildly ambitious goal of India producing and selling only EVs in the country by 2030. It did an about-turn in January this year, informing parliament that there was no such plan at all.

Then, in March, power minister RK Singh said a policy outlining the regulatory framework and technical standards on EVs would be out very soon. Shortly, the government scaled down its ambition of turning most of its cars electric to only 30% of its cars to electric by 2030.

This latest summit, organised with much fanfare by NITI Aayog, the government’s top think tank, seems to have simply added to the conundrum.

New tune

Many in India’s car industry are now scratching their heads.

“There is only confusion, and the industry, too, is confused,” the head of one of the major Indian EV makers told Quartz, requesting anonymity. “Clean mobility is definitely the need of the hour. But you cannot achieve it straight up. It has to be one step at a time.”

The problem isn’t just that the Modi government keeps shifting the goalposts, it is also unclear how it hopes to support carmakers get there. India’s passenger vehicle industry is dominated by small cars and consumers are extremely sensitive about price. But building affordable EVs that would sell in Asia’s third-largest economy, even with government subsidies, won’t be easy.

Despite the hoopla around the summit, analysts had seen the gush of hot air coming.  “It’s not surprising that nothing came out of MOVE,” said Deepesh Rathore, director at consulting firm Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors. “There will be no policy decision on such a new technology immediately, definitely not before elections (in 2019). There will only be discussions and summits.”

Still, domestic carmakers like Mahindra & Mahindra, and Tata Motors, have already struck out, and the Modi government is currently among its biggest customers. State-owned Energy Efficiency Services, the nodal organisation driving the country’s energy conservation programme, has already procured a few hundred EVs from the two carmakers for various government departments.

Others, including Maruti Suzuki, which dominates the country’s passenger car market, are taking a more measured approach. On Friday (Sep. 07), the company announced that it will start testing 50 prototypes. “The testing in multiple terrains and climatic conditions will help us get valuable insights from real-life driving conditions,” Maruti Suzuki CEO Kenichi Ayukawa said in a statement.

Last November, Suzuki announced a partnership with Toyota to together develop EVs for India. Their first car is expected to roll out around 2020. Till then, the carmaker is looking to expand its portfolio using other cleaner fuels, especially CNG.

But the exact way forward for the industry to build a sustainable EV ecosystem, balancing price and volume, remains unclear. “It’s very difficult to generate EV volumes in India because Indian consumers will take ages to warm up to EVs,” Rathore added. “This is the evangelisation stage in India.”

Some observers disagree. “Yes, it’s (subsidising batteries) probably a bit delayed but the entire idea of electric is new for India. So there will be lots of permutations and combinations that will be tried before finalising on something,” said an auto sector analyst from one of the big four consulting firms, asking not to be named. “It wasn’t absolutely directionless. Batteries is the direction.”

Left clueless

The EV industry wasn’t the only one left disgruntled.

For some five months before the summit, NITI Aayog brought together multiple stakeholders to work on identifying challenges and proposing solutions in shared mobility. In recent years, this particular segment has seen explosive growth, especially with the entry of Uber, the rise of its homegrown rival, Ola, and a number of other startups trying to solve India’s urban transportation problem.

But despite detailed deliberations, which some stakeholders hoped would yield specific policy directives to improve the shared mobility economy, the NITI Aayog’s report tabled at the summit turned out to be a damp squib. An official from one of the companies involved in the discussion outlined the process on the condition of anonymity:

Each of us were asked to make our share of representations…what challenges we face, what we propose is the solution in terms of regulation change, tax changes, and all those things.

These was very concrete, specific suggestions, which you can call were prescriptive in nature, which we thought would be endorsed by NITI (Aayog) and would be proposed by NITI (Aayog) to different ministries to make it happen. But, towards the last moment, what happened was, they started getting jittery, that this something that may not be well-taken by ministries and the state (governments), and that led them to dilute the paper to something that is just suggestive in nature.

Another source privy to these discussions corroborated that proposals were watered down not long before the actual summit dates. “Let’s say the summit didn’t go as planned. Most of the important people from the industry attended the event, but it just didn’t go through as planned,” the source said.

The result is that the 36-page NITI report offers next to nothing in terms of a roadmap. Instead, it encapsulates how shared mobility models have fared in other countries and provides vague guidelines for India to adopt those models, considering the subcontinent’s unique challenges. The dozen “suggestions to help achieve a sustainable and equitable shared mobility future” in the report contain no specific answers.

The problem with India is that public transport is almost non-existent, which makes private players so important in the shared mobility space. “Governments have failed to provide a robust public transport system in India. If the state in cities are so horrible, imagine what’s the rural scene is like,” said the analyst quoted above. “In such a situation, what’s the logic of bringing out reports that say nothing? Everyone was looking forward to more there and NITI didn’t deliver anything.”

An official with one of the largest shared mobility companies in India added, requesting anonymity: “The only thing the summit did was publish reports that have little significance and hold discussions without giving any policy guidance on shared mobility to us.”

Quartz’s e-mails to NITI Aayog, Uber, Ola, Shuttl, and Jugnoo remain unanswered.

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