The alacrity with which the Central government has prepared guidelines to regulate e-rickshaws under the Motor Vehicles Act is hardly surprising. On July 31, when the Delhi high court took matters into its hands and banned e-rickshaws, the Centre had only itself to blame for the regulatory vacuum that existed till then. The high court was responding to a PIL calling for banning these battery-operated vehicles after an infant died. The infant had fallen into a hot frying-pan when a rashly-driven e-rickshaw hit his mother throwing her off-balance. In the absence of regulations, the high court was not moved by emotional appeals that e-rickshaw drivers, whose numbers have proliferated to 50,000 in Delhi in the past two years, were being deprived of their livelihood for no fault of theirs. Since 2012, e-rickshaw drivers, complaining of harassment by the police, have been petitioning the Delhi and central governments to give them legal cover. In April, the UPA government classified them as motor vehicles, without creating a separate framework, thereby increasing their vulnerability. Many car-owners who find these slower but non-polluting vehicles — which serve as a crucial feeder network to public transport — increasingly getting in their way have also joined the chorus against e-rickshaws.
The Congress’s failures gave the BJP an opportunity to rectify the regulatory muddle. Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari responded in grand fashion on June 17, playing populist to the hilt, promising legalisation, easy loans, registration and easing of norms. Perhaps, smarting from the allegations soon after that Gadkari’s relatives had stakes in companies manufacturing e-rickshaws, or the bureaucratic inertia that impedes quick decision-making, nothing was heard since. The new regulations will ensure that e-rickshaws display registration plates, drivers carry licences, passengers are limited to four in number and speeds to 25 kmph. It is also important that the government simultaneously notify traversable routes and the standard structural designs. By curbing wattage and standardising vehicle measurements, concerns about e-rickshaws overloading up to eight passengers and over-speeding can be addressed. The complaints of power officials that e-rickshaws are stealing power or drawing from domestic connections to avoid commercial rates indicate the need for public charging points and more importantly, comprehensive policy changes.
Noiseless, smokeless, cheaper and faster, e-rickshaws are beginning to replace cycle-rickshaws, a source of employment for thousands of poor migrant labourers, on Delhi’s roads. Auto-rickshaw drivers will feel the pinch too. The road safety argument that the high court employed while banning e-rickshaws also raises the question of whether creating regulations under the Motor Vehicles Act will make them any safer. The transport and traffic police department have miserably failed to ensure road safety. Road accident fatalities are showing a rising trend for the past five years with cars, trucks and buses involved in most accidents. The high court would do well to ascertain where Delhi, and by extension, other cities stand in terms of developing people-friendly transit systems. In February 2013, Delhi announced the first phase of a transit-oriented development programme centred around metro corridors that visualises the lion’s share of road space in a 300-metre radius around metro stations for footpaths, cycle-paths, feeder systems like rickshaws and buses. Despite such pronouncements, the reality on the ground is that our regulators, the traffic police and the transport department, find it easier to penalise the two-wheelers and the rickshaws rather than the cars for traffic violations.