Meet the women steering India's electric-vehicle drive

A man recharging his Ola electric scooter at an electric vehicle charging station in New Delhi, India, on Feb 12, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

INDIA (REUTERS) - Ms 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 fast-expanding electric vehicle (EV) sector.

She assembles circuits for EV speedometers at Kinetic Communications, a manufacturer of EV components and subsidiary of Indian carmaker Kinetic Group. It is 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 government push 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.

Demand for EVs is outstripping supply and as firms ramp up production, they are offering rare jobs to women in a male-dominated car industry. "I work fixed hours and I am financially independent," said Ms Kumbhar.

The factory's workforce is about four-fifths women, which goes against the grain in a country where only 20 per cent of women are in the labour force.

In the past two years, as sales of EVs surged by more than 200 per cent and more factories sprung up, the doors are open for women in manufacturing, design and leadership roles.

Unlike 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 in the workplace.

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. EV makers Kinetic Green, Hero Electric and Ather Energy plan to expand and employ largely women.

Ms Prabhjot Kaur, 42, co-founder and chief executive (CEO) of battery maker Esmito Solutions, recalls 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."

After returning from university in the United States in the mid-1990s, Ms Sulajja Firodia Motwani, founder and CEO of Kinetic Green, joined her family's car business, only to be met with scepticism by staff.

More positively, many women leaders and shop-floor workers said their parents - fathers especially - had egged them on to pursue their ambitions.

Born and raised in a small town in Punjab, Ms Kaur traces her determination back to the karate classes she took as a teenager, where she was the only girl in a class of 50. She 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."

But it is not just female CEOs who are helping steer India's EV surge. There are also thousands of women factory workers.

Ms Nasreen Banu, 25, was the first woman in her family to study and find a job. The production supervisor at scooter manufacturer Ather said: "I love the job and I know how everything here works. A battery weighs 25kg and we often hear that girls can't lift it, but I do."

In New Delhi, Ms 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, she views helming CESL as an opportunity to "get EVs deployed on Indian roads at scale".

In her experience, women bring up issues men fail to spot, such as 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.

About eight years ago, at a meeting with major car brand representatives - all men - discussing the future of EVs in India, Ms 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 per cent of people used two- and three-wheeled vehicles or buses, while only 10 per cent drove cars.

But despite the excitement, 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 bought a lilac-coloured electric rickshaw in April, but fears taking it out in a sprawling city that has only about 600 charging stations.

Ms Kaur, also the founder of the Centre for Battery Engineering and Electric Vehicles, 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," she said, adding that more research and development was needed to make batteries safe. "Most companies - and there are more than 400 - import parts and assemble them. We need to adapt everything to our environment, our needs."

At Kinetic Green, Ms Motwani has partnered 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 Uttar Pradesh. "We showcased EVs as a means to earn a livelihood with a low running cost," she said. "They could run the e-rickshaw and earn 1,000 rupees(S$17.80) a day and we took care of the servicing."

For her part, Ms Acharya is pushing for state agencies that operate public buses to recruit more women drivers, a job which she said "pays well" and "has defined hours". Delhi has also rolled out e-rickshaws, reserving a third of the vehicles it is subsidising for women.

Ms Banu had aspired to work in a bank or an air-conditioned office, but her late father encouraged her to join the car industry. "He kept telling me I could do what boys could do. And here I am, working on batteries, the heart of an electric scooter," she said.

Ms Banu, who has a diploma in electrical engineering and electronics, is among thousands who have enrolled in courses at industrial training institutes nationwide. The government has projected the EV sector will create 750,000 jobs in the next five years.

Chip manufacturing for EVs requires precise soldering, welding and assembly, bolstering demand for women on the shop-floor and in design and production.

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 cheaper to employ and less demanding.

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