The journey from Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka to Singra takes almost 7 hours by car. The closer you get, the dustier and more potholed the roads become, but with no train service, and no airport nearby, driving is the only option. This small municipality in northern Bangladesh is remote, yet it has become a pioneer in the use of e-mobility. Singra is a role model for how public transport in rural parts of South Asia can be made safe and sustainable. And a committed local council is working with the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI) to lead the way – supported by GIZ colleagues from Energising Development partnership in Bangladesh.
Confidence on wheels
Binayak Chakraborty is one of those involved in driving the idea of green, citizen-friendly local transport. He meets us in the garage where the new e-rickshaws are parked. The local word for an e-rickshaw is ‘cholo’ – it means ‘Off we go!’ Chakraborty is the municipal council’s project coordinator. ‘Our mayor came up with the idea of using reliable e-vehicles to provide citizens with sustainable local public transport,’ he recalls. And Singra urgently needed the change: many private operators had fitted their old cycle rickshaws with engines over recent years, without adapting them to cope with much higher speeds. The result in Singra and other places in Bangladesh was a spate of serious accidents.
Ensuring road safety and protecting the climate
In 2018, Mayor Zannatul Ferdous’s team heard about the TUMI competition for innovative and environmentally friendly approaches to mobility around the world. GIZ had launched the competition as part of a BMZ initiative. Singra applied and was one of 10 locations selected to run a pilot project. Almost a year later, it became the proud owner of 10 e-rickshaws and two e-ambulances. And for the first time, it had a fixed transport route. The municipality also set up an electrical workshop and ran safety training courses for rickshaw drivers, who are now able to park their e-rickshaws safely in the garage and charge them.
people are benefiting from improved local transport and emergency services.
electric vehicles are part of Singra's fleet.
food deliveries a day during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The roll-out of ‘cholo’ has transformed Singra’s local transport system. Most of the old private rickshaws have now been taken out of service, with many providers following the council’s lead and procuring similar e-rickshaws of their own. ‘Everyone wants to drive a cholo,’ grins Chakraborty. And Singra municipal council has been recognised for its ‘outstanding contribution to mitigating climate change through e-mobility’ at the annual national conference on urban resilience to climate change. Bangladesh is one of the countries most affected by the impact of climate change around the world.
Zannatul Ferdous, Mayor of Singra
Free emergency services
As well as the role e-rickshaws play in mitigating climate change, Mayor Ferdous attaches great importance to the use of e-ambulances on Singra’s roads. They now provide free, round-the-clock emergency services within the municipality. And, says the energetic Mayor, who has recently been re-elected, ‘They benefit our health system. Many people have died here because they couldn’t get to hospital in time. Women experiencing problems in childbirth also need help rapidly.’
We worked tirelessly to transport COVID-19 patients to the clinics. We saw it as our duty to help and serve people.
Mohammed Monir Hossain
E-ambulance driver in Singra
The Singra cholo have come into their own during the COVID-19 pandemic. During lockdown, the municipal government mobilised all its resources, using e-rickshaws and e-ambulances to deliver basic supplies to residents’ homes. The cholo and ambulances also ferried medical staff to where they were needed, took mobile testing units around, and disseminated information via loudspeaker systems. ‘We were constantly taking COVID-19 patients to local clinics,’ says one of the e-ambulance drivers, 32-year-old Mohammed Monir Hossain. ‘For 55 days we never went home at all, even eating and sleeping in council buildings with local officials. We saw it as our duty to help and serve local people.’
Like his colleague Mohammed, Kabbir Uddin is particularly proud of his work as a cholo driver. The 22-year-old not only earns a steady income from his employment on the e-mobility project, enabling him to support his family, he has also gained social recognition within his community. It’s something new for him: ‘People respect me,’ he says. What started life as an environmentally friendly and safe innovation in public transport has brought about unexpected changes in Singra’s municipal life: it has seeded hope among all those involved that creative, environmentally aware and people-friendly approaches can improve the life of individuals and the community as a whole. And for local official Binayak Chakraborty, the cholos symbolise change and are a testament to the potential of future collective action and international cooperation.
Cholo driver Kabbir Uddin with his son
Up next: battery powered boats
Meanwhile, the enterprising local council is developing its next big idea – battery powered boats. The municipality is served by three rivers, and up to 60 per cent of the urban area is under water during the annual rainy season. Boats are therefore an important mode of transport, but they are usually powered by diesel engines. Singra is looking for alternatives. It’s possible that this remote municipality in Bangladesh will be making headlines again before too long.