Little-known e-rickshaw companies like YC Electric are at the forefront of the country’s EV revolution.

In the news, CPPR Chairman D Dhanuraj and Senior Associate Lizbeth Godwin express their opinions.

  • India’s second-largest e-rickshaw manufacturer, YC Electric, is a brand the average Indian would not know of.
  • A timely partnership between a cycle rickshaw company and a three-wheeler company, YC Electric sold over 40,000 EVs in 2023.

At a small factory just north of Delhi, a welder named Ram Baran spends several hours each day training his coworkers in metal cutting, molding, and shaping bodies of three-wheeler electric vehicles.

Baran is not an engineer by education. He started working at the factory in 2017 as a helper — dusting, cleaning, and organizing items. A year later, he got the opportunity to upskill and get trained in welding by Chinese engineers. Nearly 80% of Baran’s 200 co-workers have followed a similar trajectory. “[They] taught us all the work,” Baran told Rest of World. “They taught us welding — how to put the parts and cut them. Over time, I picked up the work and got promoted. Now, our people can also teach these things.” 

Each month, this upskilled team at the factory in Sonipat — 40 kilometers from New Delhi — produces bodies and chassis for nearly 5,000 three-wheeler EVs, locally known as e-rickshaws, for the New Delhi-based YC Electric, India’s second-largest manufacturer in the segment. In 2023, YC Electric alone sold over 40,600 e-rickshaws, while 82,500 electric cars were sold in the country.

Even as India awaits its first Tesla, these humble e-rickshaws made by workers like Baran are powering an EV revolution in the country. In the last decade, around 1.73 million three-wheeler EVs have been sold in India. Just last month, around 500 manufacturers — most of them homegrown — sold over 44,000 e-rickshaws, compared to less than 6,800 electric cars sold during the month.

India’s three-wheeler EV adoption is miles ahead of the rest

One in two three-wheelers sold in India is electric.

Unlike the four-wheeler and two-wheeler industries, which are controlled by popular brands like Tata, Ola, and Ather Energy, three of the top five brands in the e-rickshaw segment — YC Electric, Dilli Electric Auto, and Saera Electric — have little to no brand recall. 

“Big-name companies won’t set foot in the e-rickshaw industry,” YC Electric’s director, Pawan Kakkar, told Rest of World. “They know it’s not their segment. The buyer is not looking for aesthetics. [The vehicle] should be durable.”

YC Electric was born in 2014 out of a partnership between Kakkar and his partner Sanjeev Pahwa’s cycle-rickshaw company and a traditional tuk-tuk manufacturer. The founders took advantage of the Indian government’s push for local manufacturing around the time, and set up two assembly units in Noida and Kolkata. They started manufacturing in Sonipat by 2016. “I had the network, and, more importantly, I knew what cycle-rickshaw drivers need,” Kakkar said.

A favorable policy environment has been crucial for the three-wheeler EV revolution in India, according to Lizbeth Jibi Godwin, research associate at the Center for Public Policy and Research (CPPR). “The subsidies and exemptions from obtaining permits for EVs have made electric three-wheelers an attractive option,” Godwin told Rest of World. “Additionally, the increasing demand for last-mile connectivity in public transport, such as buses and metro services, has led to a rise in electric three-wheelers.”

Even while government policies have spurred local EV manufacturing, the industry continues to be fueled by Chinese connections for sourcing parts, technical know-how, and even training the workforce.

At the factory in Sonipat, a team of workers produces nearly 5,000 three-wheeler EVs for YC Electric each month.

The Sonipat plant where YC builds its e-rickshaws is a joint venture with the company’s former Chinese import partners Jiang Li and Xue Jian Nan, who hold a 49% stake in the facility. The link [with the Chinese suppliers] became so good that they also believed in us, invested money with us, and shared technology with us,” Kakkar said. Chinese engineers stayed “for days” to train welders like Baran when the factory first opened, he said.

His company’s ethos, according to Kakkar, is “Make in India, but technology from China.”

This dependence on China is not unique to YC Electric.

Saera Electric, a direct competitor of YC Electric, produces nearly 95% of its vehicles locally, but some parts, like the natural magnet for the motor and critical minerals for the battery, have to come from China because they do not naturally occur in India, Sudip Banerjee, the company’s planning and strategy head, told Rest of World. He said that things could slowly change as more lithium reserves are found across the country.

“As far as the information available and from the disclosure cited, there is no Indian EV company completely free of China,” D Dhanuraj, founder and chairman for CPPR, told Rest of World

Kakkar said the company’s focus on tech has helped it reach its current scale. In the financial year ending March 2024, YC Electric clocked revenue of over 6.5 billion rupees ($78 million), Kakkar said.

“From the first day, we decided we’ll work on the tech. We will not treat this like a cycle rickshaw. So whatever changes were done [to the vehicle], YC Electric did it first,” Kakkar said. For instance, he said, the company customized the vehicle’s tire size and improved its suspension to meet the requirements of Indian roads. “We got the first-mover advantage. And then we took another step — to collaborate with the Chinese.”

The China connection, though, is often hindered by geopolitical tensions. For instance, YC’s next champion product — a high-speed electric auto like the ones its larger rival Mahindra makes — is stuck after border conflicts soured relations between the two neighbors. The development of the new vehicle — which Rest of World snuck a peek at while it was being tested at the Sonipat factory — has been stunted because “people are not able to come from [China]. Business visas are also not being given,” Kakkar said. India has reportedly put a strict visa approval process in place for Chinese professionals, causing delays.

The Indian government has been trying to boost local production and reduce dependency on China with policies like a performance-linked incentive for manufacturing and the promotion of advanced chemistry cells for the local production of lithium-ion batteries, independent public transport expert Ravi Gadepalli, who works with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, told Rest of World.

But a long-term vision is lacking, Dhanuraj of CPPR said. He believes a lot more clarity and incentives need to be given to research institutions and private companies working on filling gaps in the domestic supply chain. 

At YC, meanwhile, there has been a concerted effort to bring in domestic companies to upskill staff and provide material, the Sonipat plant’s general manager, Vidya Sagar Singh, told Rest of World. Tata Steel and JSW Steel, industry leaders in steel manufacturing, have organized training sessions for workers at the plant, with more such workshops planned, he said. Many of the parts at YC’s Noida and Kolkata assembly plants now come from local manufacturers: seats from Jemco, tires from CEAT and MRF, and suspension from HSL Enterprises. 

News Published in Rest of World

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

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