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As E-Rickshaws Go Green, Why Are Environmentalists Seeing Red?

Rachna Khaira
Newly manufactured e-rickshaws fitted with Lead Acid batteries (LABs) set to hit the streets, at a manufacturing company in Dera Bassi, Punjab.

CHANDIGARH/BENGALURU — Over 11,000 new electric rickshaws adding to the 1.5 million such vehicles already in operation, all of which adds to an environmental nightmare with no clear solution: hundreds of thousands of discarded lead acid batteries.

Across the world, automobile manufacturers, start-ups, and governments are pouring money and research into developing the next-generation batteries seen as the first step in the coming electric vehicle  revolution. 

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In India, the future is already here — over 60 million Indians travel by e-rickshaws everyday. Yet the waste generated by India’s reliance on the lead acid battery, a technology first invented in 1859, could undermine the environmental gains from the widespread use of electric vehicles.

The unplanned, but widespread, adoption of lead acid batteries in India’s e-rickshaws offers a clear policy-tradeoff that could define the future roadmap of electric mobility in India: On the one hand, the easy availability of reliable relatively inexpensive lead acid batteries has jump-started the e-rickshaw explosion with minimal government interference. Yet the technology, experts say, is singularly unsuited for powering an electric vehicle over extended periods.  

A decade ago, India and China’s chaotic but enthusiastic embrace of cellular technology led to the development of the dirt-cheap cellphone. Today, the battery sector is at a similar crossroads: car makers like Tesla, BMW and Porsche are experimenting with luxury electric vehicles powered by high performance batteries, but in India, a partially formalised ecosystem of e-rickshaw assemblers are leading the charge.

A worker painting the chassis of an e-rickshaw at an electric vehicle manufacturing company in Zirakpur, Punjab. 

The energy choices of these auto-manufacturers on two ends of the spectrum are likely to shape how battery technologies develop. 

“The future is electric and the scale of adoption is too big for one technology to be the right fit for...

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