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Electric cars in India: Where's the buzz?

Plenty of electric cars are made here. Few are bought. Here's why.

India electric car
A Reva electric car parked in front of the Ministry of non-Conventional Energy Sources building in New Delhi attracts attention. (Reuters)

BANGALORE, India — Amidst the chaotic traffic in crowded Indian cities, there is an occasional blur of cheery red or a burst of brilliant yellow. It is the cutesy, four-seater hatchback called Reva, a made-in-India electric car.

By all measures, India is a country ripe for an electric car revolution. Its cities are super-polluted. Its roads are choked with every type of vehicle imaginable. You would think that the small, fuel-efficient, battery-powered Reva would be the perfect solution.

But only 3,500 Reva cars have been sold worldwide so far, a fraction of the number that India’s biggest carmaker, Maruti Suzuki, sells every month. India is the world's biggest maker of electric cars — at least currently — but Reva’s home country has simply not adopted the battery-powered car.

“I don’t see much of a market for electric cars in India for the next six or seven years,” says Vaishali Jajoo, automobile industry analyst at Mumbai-based Angel Broking. India is a growing economy so cheaper, smaller cars will rule, she says.

“It is high-priced and can only take you 50 kilometers on full charge,” agrees Anisha Tiwari, a Pune-based law student who drives a blue Reva. But Tiwari says she loves everything else about the car. Its size lends itself to easy parking and quick maneuvering on the congested roads. “Also, it gets a lot of attention,” she says.

The U.S. market is preparing for multiple electric car launches by the year's end. In India, Reva is building an ambitious facility that can produce 30,000 electric cars annually. Action is revving up in the e-car space globally and some of it is spilling over to India as well.

Earlier this month Reva’s manufacturer, the Bangalore-based Reva Electric Car Co., sold controlling stake in the company to India’s largest sports-utility-vehicle manufacturer Mahindra & Mahindra.

General Motors, which had a venture going with the makers of Reva, scrapped the plan after the stake sale. The Detroit-based company said it would develop its own electric car for India.

Mahindra & Mahindra’s large manufacturing portfolio, its wide dealer network and worldwide presence should help shore up electric car production and sales in India. As for General Motors, besides developing a car for the Indian market, the carmaker will also bring its Chevrolet Volt electric car to India post its debut in the U.S. market later this year.

However, the electric car market here is fraught with challenges.