Electric rickshaw company SMV Green is putting battery-powered vehicles on the streets of Indian cities, places choking in fumes from diesel rickshaws and growing number of cars. Its bold business model helps people on very low incomes dramatically boost their income as rickshaw drivers – and offers women a rare chance to earn a living as rickshaw drivers.

Around the world, 7 million people a year die prematurely from exposure to air pollution. SMV founder Naveen Krishna knows the impact of the problem on daily life. He says: “I haven’t taken my own family for a walk in the streets for more than two years. Walking is a privilege now – you can only do it in parks.”

Naveen is passionate about tackling the air pollution problem. “This work started with my own personal journey. In my childhood, we would drink water with our hands straight from the Ganges. But when I was 10 my father gave me a water bottle instead, which I carried everywhere – the river had become too polluted. I don’t want to give my children a bottle of water and an oxygen cylinder for them to carry around on their backs. Helping solve this problem – it’s my duty.”

Naveen Krishna accepts the 2019 Ashden Award for Sustainable Mobility

SMV Green operates in six cities, supplying rickshaws to customers paying a 10% deposit. A linked finance package allows people on very low incomes to earn a living wage as a driver and also own their vehicle outright in about two years. It’s a dramatic change in an industry where drivers often rent their vehicles for a high daily rate, with little take-home pay once the day is over.

Many of SMV’s customers are already rickshaw drivers, often using pedal rickshaws. These vehicles don’t create pollution – but they are inefficient and put the health of drivers at risk. Naveen explains: “Rickshaw pulling all day in hot temperatures requires deep breathing. Around 40% of our customers have tuberculosis or chest infections, due to their exposure to smoke and dust.” Pedal rickshaw drivers often double their income once they switch to SMV Green, as they can take more passengers and complete more journeys.

Naveen has lived in the communities SMV serves, and understands the many challenges people there face. He says: “We work with people who don’t have formal skills for other employment. They have migrant status in the cities, and so have fewer rights.” More than half can’t read or write – so SMV Green helps them complete forms and open bank accounts. Personal recommendations and a visible community presence – helped by SMV’s innovative battery swap stations – are key to finding new customers.

The company’s Vahini scheme is encouraging women to become rickshaw drivers, something almost unheard of in India. An all-female recruitment team helps persuade families and overcome social barriers – helping women earn an income and greater independence.

This year, a report found 15 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India. Naveen says: “The problem has increased tremendously in the last three years – because of population changes, people moving from the countryside to the cities - the pressure on the roads has increased. The sound pollution is terrible too – if you work in the streets, you can’t hear what is happening.”

He credits India’s government for starting to take action, with subsidies for manufacturers. But he says more must be done.

“I dream of streets where, at last, people can breathe. There should be pollution-free zones, where only non-polluting vehicles are allowed. And more use of electric vehicles in the last mile, from homes to metro stations and so on. Government policies all around the world should enable an eco-system of clean transport – promoting better, more affordable vehicles.”

Naveen also calls for more shared transport options, and a shift in attitudes. He jokes: “You see people who have one car for each member of their family, one for their servant and one for their dog.”

“We need to change mindsets. More cars shouldn’t be a status symbols – we should see greater status in how many kilogrammes of carbon we saved today. That’s what people should be talking about around the dinner table.”