It started with fitting conventional rickshaws with electric conversion kits. In 2010, a Bangladeshi company started motorising rickshaws with Chinese-imported kits.
Mechanising human-powered vehicles did not stop there. Traders increased importing larger electric three-wheelers, popularly known as 'easy bikes,' which quickly gained popularity across the country.
Today, a local industry has emerged, which supplies about 70 percent of the parts for these vehicles – including the chassis, body, wheels and batteries. Also, 95 percent of auto-rickshaws in the country today are locally made. It is a Tk17,500 crore market, according to a five year old study.
Despite this development, the journey of easy bikes has not been easy, to say the least. It has been facing constant challenges from none other than the state apparatus. More intriguingly, the state's policy has been marked with a bizarre mix of barriers and promotions at the same time.
Firstly, Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) does not issue registration, route permit or fitness certificates to these vehicles, making them street-illegal. However, this is applied in Dhaka city alone, and these vehicles have flooded the roads of villages and towns alike.
The local government bodies such as pourashavas and union parishads have been issuing local licenses to these vehicles to earn revenue. Thanks to this local patronisation, according to a joint study conducted by The Asia Foundation and Rahimafrooz Solar, there were 10 lakh easy bikes in the country in 2017, which carried 2.5 crore passengers every day.
Unsupported statistics say the number of easy bikes has risen to 40 lakh now.
A big blow to this industry was dealt in July 2015 when the government banned three-wheel and non-motorised vehicles on 22 highways across the country. Easy bike owners at that time blocked highways in protest of this decision, but the ban was not withdrawn.
The ban is loosely applied, with such vehicles still plying on many highways in the country.
The biggest blow came recently, as a High Court bench in response to a writ petition, imposed a ban on the import of battery-run easy bikes and asked the authorities concerned to remove existing ones from the roads immediately. The court also issued a rule asking why the government's silence in this regard would not be illegal.
Interestingly, the writ petition was filed by Kazi Zashimul Islam, the president of Baagh Eco Motors, which is a three-wheeler manufacturer.
This company has been claiming their product to be eco-friendly, and other three-wheelers in the market to be harmful for the environment. The writ mentioned that the lead-acid batteries used in three-wheelers pollute the environment. The petitioner also claimed that 40 lakh easy bikes running in the country recharge their batteries illegally.
Baagh Eco Motors uses expensive lithium-ion batteries in their vehicle and have small rooftop solar panels to partially recharge the battery bank.
So, why would a three-wheeler manufacturer go to the court to ban something they themselves want to sell? Is it an attempt to somehow monopolise the market?
Turns out, the company does not have that capacity. Baagh Eco Motors does not have a manufacturing plant yet. A company official said, they do not want to monopolise the market.
"Other manufacturers can come forward and shun using lead-acid batteries, we are not trying to establish a monopoly," said Mijanur Rahman, the manager of Baagh.
Lead-acid batteries are popular in the country due to their lower price, while lithium-ion batteries are most preferred for electric vehicles worldwide.
There are big lead-acid battery manufacturing companies in the country who even export their batteries to dozens of countries globally. The current market worth of this local industry is $800 million to $1 billion.
In an earlier interview with The Business Standard, Faraaz A Rahim, the executive director of Rahimafrooz Storage Power Business explained why local companies are not trying to catch up with the world regarding the battery type.
"The biggest one is the upfront cost for lithium batteries, which is much higher. Secondly, there is a scrap value for a lead-acid battery. On the other hand, recycling lithium batteries is difficult; there are only a limited number of recycling factories worldwide, and we do not have such facilities here in Bangladesh," Faraz said.
He also mentioned how the environmental impact of lead-acid battery recycling could be decreased by setting up effective ATP and ETPs; and by neutralising the acid before releasing it in the environment.
The question of affordability was also raised by other three-wheeler manufacturers of the country.
"You can build fast electric cars and many other things, but making it commercially viable in a particular place is the issue. Investors and banks will come forward when a business is viable. You have to consider your end-customers: who they are, what they want," said Saidur Rahman, the managing director of Beevatech Limited, a company that has been manufacturing various electric three- and four-wheelers for a decade now.
The company manufactures and sells around 1,000 vehicles every month.
The reason for filing a writ petition in favour of removing easy bikes from the roads instead of removing the lead-acid battery from these vehicles, or demanding proper recycling of such batteries remains a mystery.
When asked, the manager of Baagh Eco Motors said it was because the current model is unsafe with no doors.
The biggest twist in this is that the court ruling comes at a time when the government is finally mulling allowing electric three-wheelers within some rules and regulations. The government last year published a draft policy for "the control and management of the Three-wheeler and similar vehicles."
The policy states that electric three-wheelers will be given BRTA registration, and be allowed to operate in the unions and upazilas. They will also be permitted to operate for two years in smaller roads in the divisional cities and district towns where they are currently operating.
Amidst these contradictory decisions from the state apparatus, easy bikes remain a very popular mode of public transport in the country, especially for short distances.