Md. Shubho, 22, drives an electric three-wheeler taxi, known locally as an “easy bike,” in southeast Dhaka. Recently married, he said the work brings in enough to cover his living expenses.
“(It) allows me to earn quick cash every day, unlike in my earlier job at my father’s tailor’s shop,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, waiting in line for business with his red vehicle.
The battery-run taxis, which can carry four to eight passengers, are a cheap form of public transport, commonly used in both urban and rural parts of Bangladesh.
Rough estimates put the number of easy bikes at between 1 million and 4 million, with a high share of parts manufactured in Bangladesh, making up an industry worth about US$2 billion.
Yet despite being popular, the rudimentary vehicles operate illegally, as do electric rickshaws that take three passengers.
Police sometimes go on drives to seize easy bikes – and it takes a hefty sum to get them back. “It would be better if I could drive the vehicle without fear and risks,” said Shubho.
Sayed Uzzal, a leader of the Rickshaw-Van-Easy Bike Rights Protection Committee, said drivers of electric three-wheelers also face extortion because of their illegal status.
Earlier this month, the Bangladesh Supreme Court overturned a December decision by the High Court to ban electric three-wheeler vehicles.
The Supreme Court ruling paves the way for legalization of easy bikes, something the government has prevaricated over for the last decade.
A circular issued in 2020 by the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority allowed for their registration.
But Sk. Md. Mahbub-E-Rabbani, the authority’s director of road safety, said no vehicles had yet been registered because their designs were defective and would not meet requirements.
Existing vehicles use substandard materials and have low aerodynamic efficiency, said Kazi Zashimul Islam, president of Baagh Eco Motors Ltd, which plans to launch electric three-wheelers with a safer, government-approved design using lithium-based batteries.
The government can impose restrictions on vehicles deemed unfit for the road under the Road Transport Act 2018.
Easy bikes have often been seized or banned in cities and towns, leading to protests by drivers and workers associated with the industry.
The Easy Bike Action Committee is a platform that organises the sector’s workers and advocates for bringing the vehicles into a legal framework.
“If there are any safety concerns about the designs of easy bikes, the government should help mitigate the concerns rather than taking drastic steps such as banning or seizing them, affecting millions of workers who depend on the sector for their livelihood,” said Manisha Chakraborty, an advisor to the action committee.
The Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) is implementing a project to develop a standard design for electric three-wheelers.
Guidelines for electric vehicles were drafted in 2018 and, after some revisions, are now being scrutinised by the government for finalisation and approval.
Some officials and businesses, meanwhile, have championed electric vehicles for their lower greenhouse gas emissions.
BUET professor Md. Ziaur Rahman Khan said electric taxis are better for the environment and people than their gasoline equivalents as they run on batteries and have no tailpipe pollution.
Bangladesh is battling the world’s worst air quality, with particulate matter 2.5 averaging 76.9 micrograms per cubic meter, more than 15 times above recommended safe levels, according to the World Air Quality Report 2021 prepared by IQAir, a Swiss anti-pollution technology company.
Easy bikes and smaller e-rickshaws come under the umbrella category of electric three-wheelers, but there are disagreements about whether both should be legalised.
“Easy bikes should be approved while e-rickshaws should not receive legal approval, as the latter have poor dynamic stability and are highly prone to accidents,” said Khan.
But Chakraborty of the Easy Bike Action Committee called for e-rickshaws to be legalised too, once the design of the vehicles is improved with proper technical support.
Mohammad Abul Hossain, 56, lost his left-hand in an accident and drives an electric rickshaw to earn money for his family, as he cannot ride a manual model that operates like a bicycle.
“Electric three-wheelers are disabled-friendly and have offered a decent work alternative to manual rickshaws that require much physical exertion,” said Uzzal of the rights protection committee.
Md. Ahsan Samad, secretary of the Bangladesh Electric Tricycle Manufacturers and Importers Association, noted that as the Supreme Court has now cleared the way for electric three-wheelers to be legalised, large investors are queuing up to start manufacturing them, and millions of new jobs are expected to be created both in factories and plying the roads.
But for those jobs to be green, the vehicles will need to run on a cleaner source of power.
Most easy bikes and e-rickshaws currently charge their batteries with electricity from the fossil fuel-heavy national grid and thus are not carbon-free.
BUET professor Khan noted that even so, their overall greenhouse gas emissions are usually lower than from gasoline-powered vehicles.
Bangladesh has just 14 solar-powered EV charging stations concentrated in Dhaka and its surrounding regions, compared to 759 fossil-fuel filling stations, while most electric vehicles recharge at night when solar power is not available, said Khan.
The government is hoping to receive international financial aid and technical assistance to install an adequate charging infrastructure as well as electric buses in major cities this decade, with an estimated combined budget of US$60 billion.
To boost the use of clean power in the electric vehicle sector, solar charging stations should be connected to the grid so they can feed in excess power during the daytime to increase the share of renewable energy in the overall mix, Khan added.
Lead poisoning is another big environmental worry linked to electric vehicles, as their lead acid batteries are disposed of every few months at more than 400 recycling sites where they can contaminate soil, water and food systems, and harm human health, said Mahfuzar Rahman, country director of Pure Earth Bangladesh.
“Transitioning to lithium-ion batteries or similar alternatives will help the industry as these batteries charge faster, last much longer and do not pose as much pollution risk,” said Khan of BUET.
(Reporting by Md. Tahmid Zami; editing by Megan Rowling. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.)