Dispatch

Nepal’s Big EV Bet

Is it a genuine push toward a cleaner—and safer—nation?

A man views congestion in Kathmandu, Nepal
A man views congestion in Kathmandu, Nepal
A man sits atop a public bench and looks over an uncontrolled crowd of passersby and local vendors in one of the most congested arteries of Kathmandu, Nepal, on June 23. Tulsi Rauniyar Photos for Foreign Policy
By , an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

KATHMANDU, Nepal—From a bird’s-eye view, the city of Kathmandu looks less like a well-planned urban community and more like a child has carelessly scattered Legos across a brown blanket. Narrow alleys, densely packed houses, medieval courtyards, crowds of people, cars, and motorcycles, multiplied by thousands, form a city filled to the brim. Residents and vehicles are in a constant rat race for space that whips up the city’s poisonous air and sends it swirling through the streets.

This past winter and spring, citizens of Nepal’s capital wheezed and choked as the Air Quality Index shot up to hazardous levels, as it often does in the dry, colder months. Nepali media outlets and environmental activists went through their annual ritual of outrage and helplessness as hospitals filled up not with COVID-19 patients but with people diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an inflammatory lung disease linked to air pollution.

Air pollution was directly linked to at least 42,100 deaths in Nepal in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. A surge in diesel and petrol-run vehicles, along with growing fossil fuel imports, has worsened the country’s air quality. In 2019, Nepalis consumed 90 percent more fuel than they did five years before, and, currently, around 60 percent of Kathmandu’s air pollution is related to the transportation sector.

KATHMANDU, Nepal—From a bird’s-eye view, the city of Kathmandu looks less like a well-planned urban community and more like a child has carelessly scattered Legos across a brown blanket. Narrow alleys, densely packed houses, medieval courtyards, crowds of people, cars, and motorcycles, multiplied by thousands, form a city filled to the brim. Residents and vehicles are in a constant rat race for space that whips up the city’s poisonous air and sends it swirling through the streets.

This past winter and spring, citizens of Nepal’s capital wheezed and choked as the Air Quality Index shot up to hazardous levels, as it often does in the dry, colder months. Nepali media outlets and environmental activists went through their annual ritual of outrage and helplessness as hospitals filled up not with COVID-19 patients but with people diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an inflammatory lung disease linked to air pollution.

Air pollution was directly linked to at least 42,100 deaths in Nepal in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. A surge in diesel and petrol-run vehicles, along with growing fossil fuel imports, has worsened the country’s air quality. In 2019, Nepalis consumed 90 percent more fuel than they did five years before, and, currently, around 60 percent of Kathmandu’s air pollution is related to the transportation sector.

Meanwhile, the streets have become deadlier for pedestrians and cyclists: Fatalities have risen, with around 2,700 deaths and 10,700 injuries in 2019, as streets have widened to accommodate more vehicles. This has coincided with a record surge in fuel prices owing to soaring inflation, with a subsequent increase in fares for public transportation by up to 7.7 percent. Growing public discontent is palpable across the country as Nepalis have taken to the streets to protest fuel prices in recent days.

Last year, the government pledged to shift entirely to electric vehicles (EVs) by 2031. Although the specific details of how Nepal will phase out new petroleum vehicles are unclear, private EV makers from around the world received assurances of acres of land on lease, subsidies on corporate taxes, and cheaper production costs. In addition, Nepal Electricity Authority signed a contract with China’s Wanwang Digital Energy Corp. to install 50 EV charging ports across the country.

The hope is that local manufacturing of electric cars, mopeds, batteries, and other components will help curb pollution and also boost the economy by creating jobs. But there is more than a little suspicion from environmentalists and industry insiders that this is merely a ploy to boost the economy and not a genuine push toward a cleaner—and safer—nation.


Two kids ride a bike in a narrow empty alley looking across a Buddhist stupa on June 23. Uncontrolled urbanization has made Kathmandu congested with little to no open spaces.
Two kids ride a bike in a narrow empty alley looking across a Buddhist stupa on June 23. Uncontrolled urbanization has made Kathmandu congested with little to no open spaces.

Two children ride a bicycle in a narrow, empty alley looking across a Buddhist stupa on June 23. Uncontrolled urbanization has made Kathmandu congested with little to no open spaces.

Although the Nepali government claims investment in EVs will be an important step in fighting air pollution, the policy overlooks several issues.

First, the government doesn’t have a clear road map to electrify—or improve—public transport. In Kathmandu, the use of public transport is plummeting, and there are serious problems with the city’s buses, micro-buses, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, and taxis. There are only 10 public vehicles per 1,000 people in Kathmandu Valley, and these vehicles can no longer address the mass transit needs of a metro area of 2.9 million. Catching a bus is an unpleasant and often dangerous experience. Regular commuters told Foreign Policy that the worst buses have no quality seats, straps to hold onto, windowpanes, or indicator lights. Throughout the city, public transportation is unreliable, inconsistent, and overcrowded.

The country’s plan to address these issues is underdeveloped at best. In 2020, Nepal submitted its second Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the United Nations, a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Paris climate agreement. According to the document, one of the targets is to develop 124 miles of electric railway network by 2030. Yet the country has less than 62 miles of railways, and there are currently no trains in operation. The first to run will be two diesel trains bought from India just three months before Nepal submitted the document.

Though Nepal hasn’t met any of the major energy-related pledges in the first NDC in 2016, the updated commitment includes these even more ambitious targets. Importantly, as Hemant Tiwari, a transportation expert in Kathmandu, pointed out, this pledge doesn’t take into account Nepal’s private cartels, which control the public transit sector. “These private cartels have sabotaged any planned improvements to the public transport system and prioritize profits over anything else,” Tiwari said. “Without any plan of encouraging these businesses to switch to electric, we won’t meet the NDC’s transport targets.”

Traffic moves along a busy road in Kathmandu on Feb. 17.
Traffic moves along a busy road in Kathmandu on Feb. 17.

Traffic moves along a busy road in Kathmandu on Feb. 17.

Furthermore, the new EV policy doesn’t address road congestion. Even Nepalis who can afford cars and motorcycles face danger on Kathmandu’s streets. Mopeds whirl out of roundabouts, packs of stray dogs dash into the road, and huge, rusty buses lurch up from behind. Bicycle rickshaws, little taxis, massive luxury cars, drivers drifting in and out of lanes, and speeding motorcycles hurtle down major roads just inches from one another.

According to the valley traffic police department, more than 17,000 vehicles in the valley were involved in road accidents in fiscal year 2020-2021. Traffic has only worsened as many commuters have shunned public transit for private cars and mopeds. Demand for private vehicles has soared, and new vehicle registration in Nepal increased fivefold between 2007 and 2017. Rising incomes, proliferation of car loans, and the auto industry churning out low-cost motorcycles have further incentivized Nepalis to get behind the wheel.

Siva Praveen Puppala, a senior aerosol scientist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, said that traffic congestion contributes greatly to the detriment of public health. Sitting and waiting in traffic only exposes Nepalis to more pollutants.

The government has created more road space to accommodate the surge in vehicles. As a result, road networks have grown tremendously over the past decade, but the city has become increasingly hostile to pedestrians and cyclists. Sidewalks are often compromised, leaving no room on many streets for safe mobility.

Another problem is that EVs are expensive. Not many Nepalis can afford them, even as the government has tried to incentivize consumers to buy them by significantly reducing excise and customs duties and other charges on private EVs. Due to rebates, buyers of private EVs now pay around 10 times less in taxes compared to buyers of private petroleum vehicles, but despite this, EVs are often more expensive than their fuel-run counterparts. EVs are also exempted from the annual road tax for petrol and diesel vehicles.

Even for the Nepalis who can afford them, there is a shortage of EV batteries due to global supply chain disruptions. Although the country imported 1,113 electric cars, jeeps, and bans between July and December 2021, dealers in Kathmandu told the Nepali Times in February that many customers are on six-month waiting lists to buy EVs.

But even if people do buy them, “EVs will not solve our problems,” Tiwari said. “More cars, even if they are electric-powered, will increase road accidents and traffic congestion, which are already a serious problem across Nepal.”

Electric cars might help to reduce air pollution, said Prashanta Khanal, a Nepali environmentalist and sustainable transportation advocate, but all other traffic-related issues will remain, imperiling pedestrian and cyclist safety and “[deepening] social, economic, and political inequality.”


Buildings in Kathmandu shrouded by the cities polluted air on Feb. 20.
Buildings in Kathmandu shrouded by the cities polluted air on Feb. 20.

Buildings in Kathmandu shrouded by the city’s polluted air on Feb. 20.

Nepal’s situation is not unique in South Asia. With a history of dangerous traffic congestion and worsening air quality, the broader region has seen a large push toward EVs in recent years.

In Bangladesh, 84 percent of diesel-driven public buses don’t meet emissions standards. As of last November, the around 13.2 million vehicles in Delhi had become the primary source of the city’s air pollution. In Pakistan, air pollution is the cause of 1 in 10 deaths in children under the age of 5.

Those countries’ governments have made a big push toward an all-electric future to cut air pollution. Pakistan has announced that it is working on a plan to ensure that by 2040, 90 percent of all the country’s vehicles will be EVs. According to recent reports, the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority has been working on a draft policy to expedite the import and domestic manufacturing of EVs. Meanwhile, India has set a goal to have EV sales account for 30 percent of private cars and 70 percent of commercial vehicles by 2030, and at the 2021 U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, New Delhi pledged to lower its emissions intensity by 45 percent relative to 2005 levels by 2030.

Recently, various states in India invited the electric car company Tesla to open manufacturing plants. While the company has yet to commit to any investments in India, this is just one example of how South Asian countries have been working to boost their EV industries in recent years. Their strategies have largely centered on hefty tax exemptions for imports of both EVs and of equipment to manufacture EVs domestically.

A three-wheeler tempo awaits passengers to fill in its seats at Ratnapark, a local bus station in Kathmandu on Feb. 17.
A three-wheeler tempo awaits passengers to fill in its seats at Ratnapark, a local bus station in Kathmandu on Feb. 17.

A three-wheeled vehicle awaits passengers to fill in its seats at Ratnapark, a local bus station in Kathmandu, on Feb. 17.

Yet experts bemoan that EV plans in South Asia focus primarily on profit, under the guise of green policies. If, for instance, the Nepali government really cared about environmental and public safety issues, Khanal argued, it would promote an efficient and reliable mass transit system—or even an electric public transport system.

But the government seems to be hesitant to promote EV buses altogether. As Khanal explained, there is no real difference in rebates between electric buses and their petrol-run counterparts. Moreover, in 2018, the government proposed to turn at least 20 percent of public vehicles into electric buses by 2020, in a plan based on Nepal’s commitments at the 2015 U.N. climate conference in Paris. Yet the plan hasn’t moved an inch in the past four years.

Governments like Nepal’s have invested significantly in producing, selling, and importing private EVs in a bid to boost their economies. So, for now, any move toward electrifying buses or improving public transport threatens business.

Meanwhile, cities like Kathmandu, Khanal said, are in dire need of efficient public transport—and above all a recognition that urban space should belong not to vehicles, but to people.

Tulsi Rauniyar is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Kathmandu, Nepal. She focuses on environmental and humanitarian issues. Twitter: @cupoftulsi

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