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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's ambitious plan to push electric vehicles at the expense of other technologies could benefit Chinese car makers seeking to enter the market, but is worrying established automakers in the country who have so far focused on making hybrid models.
India's most influential government think-tank unveiled a policy blueprint this month aimed at electrifying all vehicles in the country by 2032, in a move that is catching the attention of car makers that are already investing in electric technology in China such as BYD and SAIC.
The May 12 report by Niti Aayog, the planning body headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recommends lower taxes and loan interest rates on electric vehicles while capping sales of petrol and diesel cars, seen as a radical shift in policy.
India also plans to impose higher taxes on hybrid vehicles compared with electric, under a new unified tax regime set to come into effect from July 1, upsetting car makers like Maruti Suzuki and Toyota Motor.
The prospect of India aggressively promoting electric vehicles was a "big opportunity", a source close to SAIC, China's biggest automaker, told Reuters.
"For a newcomer, this is a good chance to establish a modern, innovative brand image," the source said, although they added the company would need more clarity on policy before deciding whether to launch electric vehicles in India.
Earlier this year SAIC set up a local unit called MG Motor which is finalising plans to buy a car manufacturing plant in western India. A spokesman at SAIC did not comment specifically on the company's India plans.
Warren Buffett-backed BYD already builds electric buses in the country, while rival Chongqing Changan has said it may enter India by 2020.
BYD said in a statement the company would have "a lot more confidence" to engage in the Indian market if the government supported the proposed policy. The company said it would look at increasing its investment in India but did not give details on how it would expand its business and market share.
While the Niti Aayog report has not yet been formally adopted, government sources have said it was likely to form the basis of a new green cars policy.
If so, India would be following similar moves by China, which has been aggressively pushing clean vehicle technologies. But emulating China's success could be tough.
Electric vehicles are expensive due to high battery costs, and car makers say a lack of charging stations in India could make the whole proposition unviable.
The proposed policy focuses on electric vehicles, and is likely to also include plug-in hybrids. But it overlooks conventional hybrid models already sold in India, such as Toyota's Camry sedan, Honda Motor's Accord sedan and so-called mild hybrids built by Maruti Suzuki.
Hybrids combine fossil fuel and electric power, with mild hybrids making less use of the latter.
In doubling down on electric power India would be shifting away from its previous policy, announced in 2015, that supported hybrid and electric technology.
That could delay investments in India, expected to be the world's third-largest passenger car market within the next decade, according to industry executives and analysts.
"All these policy changes will affect future products and investments," said Puneet Gupta, South Asia manager at consultant IHS Markit, adding that most car makers would need to rethink product launches, especially of hybrids.
Mahindra & Mahindra is the only electric car maker in India but has struggled to ramp up sales, blaming low buyer interest and insufficient infrastructure.
Pawan Goenka, managing director at Mahindra said the company was working with the government and other private players to set up charging stations in India. Mahindra was also focusing on developing electric fleet cars and taxis, Goenka said.
The cost of setting up a car charging station in India ranges from $500 to $25,000, depending on the charging speed, according to a 2016 report by online journal IOPscience.
While the proposed policy suggests setting up battery swapping stations and using tax revenues from sales of petrol and diesel vehicles to set up charging stations, it does not specify the investment needed or whether the government would contribute.
"For full electric vehicles, the economic gap remains huge and the charging infrastructure needed does not exist," said a spokesman at Tata Motors. The company makes electric buses and is working on developing electric and hybrid cars.
Most automakers have focused on bringing in hybrid models that are seen as a stepping stone to electrification. Toyota recently launched its luxury hybrid brand Prius in India, while Hyundai Motor plans to debut its Ioniq hybrid sedan next year.
Maruti's parent Suzuki Motor, along with Toshiba and Denso, plans to invest 20 billion yen ($180 million) to set up a lithium ion battery plant in India which would support Maruti's plan to build more hybrids.
But the apparent sharp shift in policymakers' thinking in favor of electrification is forcing automakers like Toyota and Nissan Motor to seek more clarity before finalising future products for India, while Hyundai may delay new launches.
Toyota, the world's No. 2 carmaker by sales, had planned to have a hybrid variant for all its vehicles in India, but the company's future launches would now depend on the new policy, said Shekar Viswanathan, vice chairman of its Indian subsidiary.
Nissan, which plans to launch a hybrid SUV later this year, said in a statement it was waiting for more clarity before deciding whether to bring electric cars to India.
A plan by Hyundai to launch at least three hybrid cars in India in 2019-2020 would likely to be delayed, said a source.
Hyundai did not comment on queries related to delays.
"If the government will be aggressive on electric vehicles and not support other technologies, companies will need to rethink investments," said an executive with an Asian carmaker.
Additional reporting by Jake Spring and Muyu Xu in Beijing and Sudarshan Varadhan in New Delhi; Editing by Euan Rocha and Alex Richardson