There are few sights more cringeworthy than a white man climbing into a rickshaw – a three-wheeled vehicle that’s ubiquitous in South Asia – turning the ignition key, and driving off with his name emblazoned on the license plate. Which is exactly what Jeff Bezos did in a video he tweeted on Sunday, a clip that ends with him leading a fleet of Amazon-branded electric rickshaws with Indian drivers as he lets out his signature cartoonish laugh.
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) January 20, 2020
The stunt accompanied Bezos’ recent trip to India, which Reuters dubbed a “public relations nightmare.” Bezos went on the three-day tour to promote Amazon India and to announce the company’s future plans in the country. Since Amazon entered India seven years ago, it’s invested more than $5 billion in operations there, and it will invest $1 billion more over the next five years to “digitally enable” small and medium businesses. Many consider Amazon’s business in India cause for concern: The Indian government opened an antitrust investigation into Amazon and its Walmart-owned rival, Flipkart, just last week. While Bezos proclaimed at the SMBhav Summit that “the 21st century is going to be an Indian century,” thousands of small business owners protested his arrival with signs saying, “Jeff Bezos go back!”
Although the rickshaw video was one small, 30-second part of Bezos’ trip, it reveals how Amazon sees itself in the global marketplace. The purpose of the clip was to announce Amazon’s incoming electric delivery vehicles in India; the accompanying blog post states that the company will have 10,000 electric vehicles in the country by 2025, in line with its Climate Pledge, which commits Amazon to being carbon neutral by 2040. Amazon is positioning itself not only as a leader in corporate responsibility in the face of climate change, but also as a chameleonic enterprise that can seamlessly embed itself in the infrastructure of another culture.
Electric rickshaws have become a fixture of the streetscape in India in recent years. First introduced to the country about a decade ago, e-rickshaws were officially legalised nationwide in 2015. Since then, their popularity has risen dramatically, with some cities offering subsidies for new e-rickshaw buyers. In 2018, India saw as many as 11,000 new e-rickshaws every months, and in August 2019 the total number of e-rickshaws in the country was estimated at 1 million. Even ridesharing companies like SmartE and Ola use e-rickshaws. Last year the Indian government set the ambitious target of 2023 for all three-wheeled vehicles in the country to be electric as part of its ongoing pollution control schemes.
India is undergoing what the New York Times has called an “electric vehicle revolution.” Since electric cars are still prohibitively expensive for most people (only about 8,000 were sold in the past six years in India), the electric rickshaw has become the symbol of this transformation. E-rickshaws are quieter and generally cheaper to run than autorickshaws, their fuel-run counterparts. They’re also far less labor labor-intensive than bicycle rickshaws, which are starting to be phased out throughout India, said Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan, a researcher who formerly led a hybrid rickshaw enterprise.
The innovation isn’t without its drawbacks. Although emissions have decreased, e-rickshaws tend to be less safe than autorickshaws. Their batteries, which sit below passengers, can overheat and break down, especially in India’s extreme temperatures. And there’s still a lack of infrastructure for charging and battery changing. Additionally, Gopalakrishnan told me that electricity prices can be inconsistent, and that the environmental impacts of developing the batteries can counteract some of the positive effects of putting e-rickshaws on the road. Most e-rickshaws today, for instance, are powered by lead-acid batteries, since India lacks easy access to lithium.
How Amazon will deal with these EV complications remains to be seen. What I’m more curious about at this point is Bezos’ use of the term rickshaw to describe the vehicles. The rickshaw is, as Gopalakrishnan put it, “definitely an icon of Indian transportation.” But it’s a symbol with a fraught history: While it’s firmly rooted in certain Asian cultures, it’s also a vestige of colonialism. The hand-pulled rickshaw was invented in Japan around 1869 and brought by the British to Shimla, India, around 1880. Now, operating a rickshaw is a source of livelihood for people throughout India, and drivers, who tend come from under-resourced backgrounds, are often essential members of local communities.
As Shireen Hyrapiet, a professor of geography who has studied the cultural politics of rickshaws, pointed out, there’s a clear distinction between rickshaws and delivery rickshaws, which are usually just called “vans” despite being three-wheeled. Rickshaws, Hyrapiet said, are distinctly passenger carts – whether they’re hand-pulled, bicycle or auto. (A few thousand of the traditional hand-pulled rickshaws still exist in Kolkata, though the government has restricted their use and described the labor as “barbaric.”) Amazon’s new vehicles are only meant to transport goods. So the fact that Bezos named them rickshaws, rather than vans, is an odd statement in itself—one that becomes even odder with the spectacle of a white billionaire sitting in the driver’s seat, even if just for a PR stunt.
Rickshaws also have a distinct appearance º a classic autorickshaw, for instance, is yellow and green – and Amazon’s rickshaws look, well, like pointier versions of the sleek gray Amazon vans. “These look so vastly different than what I’m used to travelling in when I go to India,” said Gopalakrishnan.
Still, Hyrapiet said, Amazon’s EVs could be useful for getting around the narrow streets of Indian metropolises. Rickshaws have become so intrinsic to contemporary life because of what Hyrapiet calls the “urban morphology” of the postcolonial city: The vast network of winding roads, which extend for kilometres in urban landscapes, can be impenetrable to cars and four-wheeled delivery vehicles.
Although Hyrapiet is somewhat optimistic about Amazon’s new e-rickshaws, at least “in terms of the pollution outlook,” she’s worried about space. “India’s road space is very limited in comparison to developed countries,” she said. There may be zero emissions, but Amazon’s model is still founded on growth. At the end of the day, said Hyrapiet, whether they’re delivery vans or rickshaws, “it’s going to add more vehicles to the road.”
Chloe Hadavas is a Slate intern.