An alcoholic husband, an egg cart, and a meagre income — up until 2019, this was Sushila Devi’s life. But with the help of green mobility, she has since broken free from the shackles of patriarchy.
For the last two years, Sushila has been proudly driving an electric rickshaw down the congested streets of Allahabad’s north Malakka area, every day for 12 hours. With an average income of Rs 10,000 per month (which is twice what she made through the egg cart), she has finally tasted freedom.
“I own this vehicle,” Sushila, who is in her thirties, proudly tells The Better India, and adds, “I never thought driving a vehicle could turn my life around, considering how I mocked my friend when she first suggested it. But now, I’m loving this sense of freedom and dignity. The best part is that I get to do it without feeling guilty about emitting vehicular pollution.”
In 2018, Sushila approached SMV Green Solutions, a social enterprise that aims to upgrade careers and generate employment among people from marginalised sections of society through e-mobility. The enterprise, founded by Naveen Krishna in 2015, provides a platform where people can buy, operate and, most importantly, own a vehicle of their own.
The idea of SMV was born when Naveen, an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University, learned about the deplorable conditions of rickshaw pullers in the city. They earn very little, despite the amount of physical exertion that goes into carrying these passengers around daily. Besides, the manual ferrying takes a toll on their health.
“Upon seeing the advent of e-vehicles in India, I asked a few pullers to switch to e-rickshaws around 2013-2014. But they said financial institutions were hesitant to sanction loans to them. They had very little knowledge of how they could procure these vehicles, and about their benefits. I left my job and established SMV to create livelihood opportunities, and reduce carbon emissions. Initially, the venture started with rickshaw pullers, and gradually, we included masons, farm labourers, women, and anyone else who wanted to increase their income and find a new job,” Naveen tells The Better India.
SMV identifies individuals with financial constraints and helps them get loans for e-rickshaws. They also provide support with respect to battery charging, insurance, licence and other such paperwork. The organisation operates across four cities — Varanasi, Allahabad, Lucknow and Delhi. So far, they have empowered nearly 1,700 people, 80 of whom are female drivers. The women are empowered under their ‘Vahini’ programme.
The need for a green model
Naveen first learned about the plight of rickshaw pullers while working in Lucknow between 2006 and 2010. He used the vehicle for daily commute, so striking up a conversation with the pullers was not challenging. He discovered how they fell into traps by leasing or renting the manual rickshaw. After giving their share to the lender, they were left with hardly any money.
“In the evenings, the pullers would incessantly consume alcohol and smoke beedis to cope with the exploitation and lack of dignity. Their working conditions were unjust. The ones who didn’t have registration documents were obligated to give hafta (bribe) to the police or civic bodies. The concept of running a rickshaw without bribing seemed impossible. Those who wanted to shift to e-rickshaws didn’t have money for the down payment. These problems motivated me to quit my job and build an ecosystem with last-mile mobility,” Naveen says.
As he searched for ways to empower the pullers, he came across electric rickshaws and Uttar Pradesh government’s plan to achieve 100% electrification of autorickshaws, cabs, school buses/vans, etc., by 2030 under Electric Vehicle Manufacturing Policy, 2018.
“As per a report by The Energy and Research Institute (TERI), 7.5% of total emissions in India are from the transport and automotive sector. By 2030, India will have 19.5 million three-wheelers and even if 30% of three-wheelers switch to electric by 2030, there will be 7% reduction in CO2 emissions. I can’t be more proud that SMV will be a tiny fraction of that 30%,” he says.
How does it work?
Naveen has partnered with financial institutions like Avanti Finance and IndusInd Bank to provide loans to rickshaw pullers. His firm also has tie-ups with electric vehicle manufacturing companies like YC Electric and Saarthi to purchase rickshaws at a certain margin. While the rickshaws are sold at market price, SVM Solutions benefits by purchasing the vehicle from companies at lower rates. The company also earns revenues from companies that give vehicle insurance to the drivers.
The initial period was not easy, Naveen says, “The banks were hesitant to trust us, but after our pilot project, the journey was relatively smooth,” he adds. Under their pilot project, the banks provided 90% loan on the vehicle cost (Rs 1,50,000) to 23 drivers. All of them managed to repay their instalments on time.
“All an individual has to do is approach the organisation with valid KYC documents. The organisation will create asset ownership using forward and backward linkages. We will give multiple financing options to choose from, and after the vehicle is purchased, we provide support services like insurance and maintenance,” Naveen explains.
It takes an average of one to two years to repay the instalments. Once the driver repays, the vehicle is theirs in every sense.
Recently, the enterprise has also started providing a battery-swap service called ‘Smart Charge’. The drivers can switch from lead-acid battery to a lithium-ion one for better performance. The company has established a station where they can charge the batteries for Rs 200. One single charge can run up to 100 kilometres.
For 52-year-old Kushji Kushwaha from Varanasi, between single-handedly carrying heavy loads for kilometres on his trolley and owning his own e-rickshaw, things have improved drastically.
“My body aches are a thing of the past. I can easily drive around the city and earn more, without any physical exertion,” says Kushwaha, adding, “I drive the auto for eight hours a day, and leave it to charge overnight. I earn up to Rs 600 daily.”
Meanwhile, for Lalitha, the e-rickshaw is a means to defy gender norms and earn a stable livelihood. She was a construction labourer, who often had to skip work due to safety concerns. In 2018, when she saw a female driver behind the wheel, she convinced her husband to approach the organisation so she could do the same.
“I didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle, let alone a three-wheeler. But I was adamant on improving our financial situation. The rickshaw comes with a camera, phone, and pepper spray. My family and the organisation have access to the cloud camera system, and our cellphones have a panic button. Additionally, women feel safer to commute in the late evening when they see a female driver,” Lalita, who is from Allahabad, says.
Seeing the positive response, Naveen hopes to scale his firm’s presence in 15 other cities by 2023. For the same, he is exploring various fundraising modes. Electric rickshaws are proving to be beneficial for people with less means, as well as for the environment. The rickshaws can be taken across the city and through narrow lanes, and the drivers don’t have to worry about the ever-rising petrol prices, thus making it a viable solution.
Get in touch with SMV Green Solutions here
Edited by Divya Sethu
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