Move over: The women steering India's electric vehicle drive
BY Roli Srivastava and Anuradha Nagaraj 17 May 2022
Pratibha Kumbhar, a 35-year-old mother of two, is making up for lost time.
Trained in soldering, she aspired to a career in electrical work but hemmed saris for her husband's tailor shop in the west Indian city of Pune until two years ago, when she found work in the country's fast-expanding electric vehicle (EV) sector.
Kumbhar's ambition, stalled by motherhood and safety worries about working in a roadside electrical shop, has now taken wings as she assembles circuits for EV speedometers at a factory in Pune - her first job as a formal worker with fixed wages.
She is one of a small but growing group of women blazing a trail amid India's EV boom, driven by record sales and a policy push, as the government seeks to cut planet-heating emissions by promoting the use of electric scooters, rickshaws and cars run on power that is set to become increasingly clean over time.
Despite concerns over safety and quality, as well as a shortage of charging stations, demand for EVs is outstripping supply - and as firms ramp up production, they are offering rare jobs to women in an auto industry that has been male-dominated.
"I work fixed hours and I am financially independent," said Kumbhar, assembling circuits with pink-gloved fingers on an all-female shop-floor at Kinetic Communications, a manufacturer of EV components and a subsidiary of Indian auto-maker Kinetic Group.
"My soldering is good and I may get a promotion. This was my dream," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The factory's workforce is about four-fifths women, which goes against the grain in India, where only 20% of women are in the labour force.
The South Asian nation has one of the world's lowest female participation rates, far below the global average of 47% of women employed or seeking a job compared with 74% of men.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated India's gender gap, as nearly half of women lost their jobs across the formal and informal sectors during lockdowns and had not returned to work by the end of 2020, research shows.
Yet in the past two years, as sales of EVs surged by over 200% in India and more factories sprang up to produce them, the doors have started to open for women in manufacturing, design and leadership roles.
In contrast to manufacturing of internal combustion engine vehicles, which relies on heavy machinery, EV companies are focused on electronics, assembly, software and design - skill-sets more widely available among women, industry analysts say.
Labour rights advocates see women's comparative advantage in the EV business as an opportunity to increase their pay and strengthen their status and influence in the workplace.
Rashmi Urdhwareshe, president of the Society of Automotive Engineers, noted that startups in the EV ecosystem are bringing in new ideas and, unlike legacy auto firms with a conventional male workforce, are building their business from scratch.
Ride-hailing firm Ola Cabs and Italian motor manufacturer Piaggio have set up all-women shop-floors at their India-based factories in the last year.
And Kinetic Green and fellow leading EV makers Hero Electric and Ather Energy plan to expand and employ largely women.
Battery-maker Esmito Solutions and EV manufacturing majors Kinetic Green and Mahindra Electric, meanwhile, are helmed by women, as is the federal power ministry's energy transition company.
Urdhwareshe, one of the few women in India's auto industry when she started work in the 1980s, said women have the mindset needed to navigate the challenges of a fledgling business, because they care about safety and value for money.
"But there are not enough women yet, and the few that are there are trend-setting examples," she emphasised.
Prabhjot Kaur, the co-founder and CEO of Esmito, a startup producing batteries and battery-swapping stations for EVs, remembers having to patiently explain her job in meetings where she was often the only woman.
"I would be asked two, three, four times about what I do. I remember the faces and expressions of everyone who assumed I was a secretary, and then saw me take the floor to make my presentation," said the 42-year-old with a smile.
Sulajja Firodia Motwani, founder and CEO of Kinetic Green, has also been in Kaur's shoes.
After finishing university and returning from the United States in the mid-1990s, she joined her family's auto business, only to be met with scepticism by staff.
"They thought I was a privileged daughter who was here for a little time and that I would disappear in a few days," said Motwani, 51.
Kaur and Motwani have faced other challenges common to most women in the EV corporate world, from a lack of female toilets to not being taken seriously by colleagues.
More positively, many women leaders and shop-floor workers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation their parents had been their loudest cheerleaders, with fathers especially egging them on to pursue their ambitions.
Born and brought up in Rajpura, a small town in largely agrarian northern Punjab state, Kaur traces her determination back to her desire to hold her own in the karate classes she took as a teenager - the only girl in a class of 50.
Kaur did not want to go, but her father persuaded her.
"I was very angry and it translated into me being the best student," she said. "It also taught me not to fear my surroundings and so I never feared large groups of men."
As a child, Motwani whiled away the hours in her grandfather's office, scribbling away on its walls - but when she came back armed with a degree from Carnegie Mellon University, she still had to prove her worth.
"I have earned my place in the industry... I never took this platform for granted. I was back at work four days after my baby was born," said Motwani, sitting in the same office.
In her early days, she travelled across 200 districts to get to know the firm's dealership network.
But it is not just female CEOs who are helping steer India's EV surge - there are also thousands of women factory workers.
Nasreen Banu, 25, was the first woman from her family to study and find a job. As a production supervisor on scooter manufacturer Ather's battery assembly line, she said she was ready to "break the bias about what girls can and cannot do".
"I love the job and I know how everything here works," she said. "A battery weighs 25 kg and we often hear that girls can't lift it, but I do," she said on a break during her shift at the Ather factory in Hosur in southern Tamil Nadu state.
In India's capital, New Delhi, Mahua Acharya heads Convergence Energy Services Limited (CESL), the federal power ministry's energy transition company.
With an environmental management degree from Yale and experience in green finance, renewable energy and carbon markets, Acharya views heading up CESL as an opportunity to "get EVs deployed on Indian roads at scale".
"I spend a lot of time thinking of business models and innovative ways to put these vehicles on the road," she said.
Government incentives and tax benefits for manufacturers and buyers have supported a rise in the production and sales of EVs, which so far currently number a million, or nearly 2% of all vehicles on Indian roads.
CESL is trying to push these still small numbers higher by setting up more charging stations, facilitating easy loans for buyers and placing bulk orders for public transport vehicles in cities, making them more affordable.
But Acharya's vision for scale faces obstacles ranging from out-of-stock vehicles and limited supplies of batteries and semiconductors, to safety concerns and too few charging stations mainly fed by fossil-fuel power.
As a woman heading the government's e-mobility push, she has not faced bias personally, despite often being the only woman in meetings alongside 15 men, she said.
In her experience, women bring up issues men fail to spot, such as flagging the importance of locating EV charging stations "in an area that is safe, not far away or grungy-looking", rather than based solely on electricity and land availability.
The perspective and nuance brought by women is welcomed by some in the industry.
"We (men) are cut-throat, but discussions are more malleable with them," said Sohinder Singh Gill, CEO of Hero Electric and director general of the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles.
About eight years ago, at a meeting with major auto brand representatives - all men - discussing the future of EVs in India, Motwani remembers wondering why they were talking only about cars and Tesla.
She spoke out over the chatter to draw attention to the fact that, in India, 90% of people used two- and three-wheeled vehicles or buses, while only 10% drove cars.
Her persistence led the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers to set up a focus group on two and three-wheelers, which she was asked to champion.
That has enabled her to "contribute and make a difference" to India's new policy for electric vehicles - which she said pays attention to green mobility for the masses.
As EV demand outstrips supply in India, the excitement in the business is palpable, despite its teething troubles.
Conversations with EV company CEOs are peppered with hopeful predictions that the "sunrise industry" will account for 30% of all vehicle sales sooner than India's target year of 2030.
Those working in policy speak of an "unprecedented" response by Indian states to make the EV switch - which promises to reduce crude-oil import costs and nudge India closer to its target to cut emissions to net zero by 2070, announced at the COP26 summit in Glasgow last November.
But beyond the smiling faces of new EV users on social media with their brightly-coloured wheels, the industry faces some big barriers: from e-scooters bursting into flames to a lack of charging points that is eroding buyer confidence.
Delhi resident Dolly Maurya, 26, took advantage of a state subsidy and purchased a lilac-coloured electric rickshaw in April, but she fears taking it out in a sprawling city that only has about 600 charging stations.
"If the battery gets discharged, where will I go? How will I take it home?" asked Maurya, who wants to use the vehicle for part-time work transporting passengers around the capital as she prepares for an entrance test for a government job.
Other concerns are mounting among EV users as sales rise.
Esmito's Kaur has tracked recent cases of e-scooters catching fire with an increasing sense of dismay.
"It is worrying, because it sends out the wrong signals at a time when the industry is growing," said Kaur, who is set to scale up her manufacturing, currently done in the basement car park of the IIT research park in Chennai.
Kaur - also the founder of the Centre for Battery Engineering and Electric Vehicles, which collaborates with auto firms to develop batteries as an alternative to fossil fuel engines - said more R&D was needed to make batteries safe.
"Most companies, and there are over 400, import parts and assemble them," she added. "We need to adapt everything to our environment, our needs."
To build a consumer base from zero five years ago, Kinetic Green's Motwani partnered with non-profit groups and states to subsidise electric three-wheeler rickshaws as a new source of income for women in insurgency-hit Dantewada in eastern India and bicycle rickshaw pullers in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
"We showcased EVs as a means to earn a livelihood with a low running cost," said Motwani, sitting next to a cabinet covered with dozens of business leadership awards.
"They could run the e-rickshaw and earn 1,000 rupees ($13) a day and we took care of the servicing," said Motwani, who believes in the Hindi saying: "jo dikhta hai woh bikta hai (what you see, sells)".
For her part, Acharya in the federal government is pushing for state agencies that operate public buses to recruit more women drivers.
"It is a good job, pays well, has defined hours. One of the things women want is certainty of when they can get home," she said.
The Delhi government this year removed height restrictions for bus drivers so that more women can apply and abolished the heavy vehicle driving-licence fee of 15,000 rupees for them.
The city has also rolled out e-rickshaws, reserving a third of the vehicles it is subsidising for women like Maurya.
"It is about creating an opportunity for women to work," said Delhi transport minister Kailash Gahlot.
The initiative is also about "good messaging" to encourage more people to switch to EVs and spread a sense of safety among public transport users, he added.
Beyond financial incentives, rising EV sales in India are also rooted in growing awareness about climate change, soaring fuel prices and mobility challenges in a pandemic-hit world.
Mumbai resident Rajni Arun Kumar, 43, an associate director at a human resources startup, frowned on fuel-guzzling cars and used public transport until COVID-19 made her worry about taking her two unvaccinated children out in crowded spaces.
She found the perfect solution for her office commute and dropping her children at their hobby classes: an orange e-scooter. But she is now hoping to get a charging point in the vicinity as the nearest one is 3 km (1.86 miles) and a traffic jam away.
"There has to be some point where people begin to act to help conserve the environment," she emphasised.
Companies know that women like Kumar are key decision-makers on household purchases.
Hero Electric's Gill said e-scooters have more women buyers than conventional scooters, as the new machines remove the bother of trips to fuel stations and are easier to manoeuvre.
Besides being price-sensitive, Indian women base their purchases on practical features, said Prerana Chaturvedi, co-founder and CEO of Evolet India, an EV startup in Gurgaon near Delhi.
Its scooter has a lower seat height and clean edges to stop scarves and saris getting entangled, said Chaturvedi, a former military aviator in the Indian Air Force who believes EVs should be as simple to operate as cell phones.
Off the highway connecting Chennai to Bengaluru, cutting through the industrial town of Hosur, the road to the Ather factory meanders through rose plantations.
It is a long way from the bustle of Banu's village in Bhatkal, a coastal town in southern Karnataka state, but she loves the independence her job at Ather has given her.
She aspired to work in a bank or an air-conditioned office, but her late father encouraged her to join the auto industry.
"He kept telling me I could do what boys could do. And here I am, working on batteries, which are the heart of an electric scooter," she said, teary-eyed as she talked about her "hero".
Banu, who has a diploma in electrical engineering and electronics, is among thousands who have enrolled in courses at industrial training institutes nationwide, before joining the workforce and honing their skills on the job.
Recruitment agency TeamLease Digital, which scouts talent for EV firms, said hiring of both sexes rose by more than 30% in the last two years, with 40% growth forecast by the end of 2022.
The government has projected that the EV sector will create 750,000 jobs in the next five years.
Munira Loliwala, business head at TeamLease Digital, estimated the number of new job openings at more than 200,000 in the last six months alone - with women especially sought after.
"It's like when mobile (phone) manufacturing began in India, women were needed to handle minute pieces with care, their fingers being thinner, more nimble," she said.
Similarly, chip manufacturing for EVs requires precise soldering, welding and assembly, bolstering demand for women on the shop-floor and in design and production.
"Women leaders are already inspiring many to join," Loliwala added.
While welcoming the new job prospects for women, labour and gender campaigners said EV companies should introduce robust measures to better protect labour rights and equalise pay.
Other manufacturing industries like clothing, which also employs a majority of women, often opt for female workers because they are regarded as easier and cheaper to employ.
They are generally paid less for the same job as men, keeping production costs low, and cause less trouble for bosses, said Preeti Oza, coordinator of the non-profit Centre for Labour Research and Action.
"(Women) tend to rush home after work, don't collectively raise demands and hesitate to unionise, making them preferred hires," she added.
But for Banu, who is determined to carry on working even after she gets married, the compact Ather factory is home.
She fondly recalls the day she took her father to the bus station after his monthly visit to check on her.
"There was an Ather parked near the bus station and I excitedly told him that I could dismantle it and put the entire scooter back together right there. He laughed loudly and said the owner might take offence," she said.
"He was so proud of me."
Reporting: Roli Srivastava and Anuradha Nagaraj
Text editing: Megan Rowling and Barry Malone
Photography: Vivek Muthuramalingam, Ruhani Kaur, Roli Srivastava, Anuradha Nagaraj
Producer: Amber Milne
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