Back to basics

Every taluka in India can meet its own food, water and energy needs

By Anil K Rajvanshi
Published: Friday 15 November 2002

-- The energy situation in most developing countries is quite alarming. Energy production and distribution patterns in developing countries, including India, have been modelled on the 50 to 100 year old model of the Western countries, which includes centralised energy production, development of megacities at the expense of rural areas and the unsustainable husbanding of land. Agriculture is most dependent on energy. Lack of energy is, therefore, the single-most important reason for the decline of agriculture-based activity and, consequently, economic activity in rural areas. What is required, then, is a shift in energy policy. An attempt to improve the quality of life in rural areas through an alternative model based upon sustainable growth and renewable energy. Therefore, a taluka-based development model is proposed as the basis for sustainable rural societies.

India produces in its talukas about 400 million tonnes per year of agricultural residues, which can theoretically produce 53,000 megawatts (mw) of power through biomass-based power plants. This is 70 per cent of the total amount of power available in the country at present from all other sources. However, this agricultural residue is dispersed all over the country. We are, therefore, looking at decentralised power production systems.

Following this approach, an energy self-sufficient taluka model was developed by the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (nari) and adopted for Phaltan taluka. This study became the basis of a national policy on energy self-sufficient talukas, and was adopted by the government of India in 1996 (Task Force Report, ministry of non-conventional energy sources, government of India, New Delhi, March 1995).

The crux of the study is that a taluka provides the critical mass for production of agro-based and value-added products. Smart production facilities and improved technology, like gas-based microturbines and fuel cells, will further usher in an era of efficient small-scale manufacturing facilities. Technological issues, in fact, need to be tackled before the taluka model can become truly sustainable and self-sufficient in energy and food production.

In this context, transportation is a key issue. The Phaltan study showed that ethanol and pyrolysis oil production could take care of the demand for fast-moving vehicles, while also reduc ing emissions. An alternative to these vehicles are electric cycle-rickshaws. These can travel at about 60 kilometres an hour, and take up to three passengers.

A large number of talukas in various states have woefully inadequate water supply. Mega-irrigation projects have not helped the cause. It is perhaps time now to consider private, decentralised water utilities. This will include rainwater harvesting and treating and recycling used water. nari has data, which shows that rainwater harvesting in Phaltan taluka can yield four to five times more water per year than the existing canal supply. The cost of water from such supply will come to one paisa per litre. A private utility could manage this better than the corrupt public system.

The third, equally important, issue is fertiliser production. The availability of organic fertilisers is important for maintaining the fertility and sustainability of land. With almost all agricultural residues taken for energy generation, the fertiliser issue could become critical. However, the nari study showed that there is enough potential for making fertiliser from night soil and composting of weeds and vegetable waste. These materials could be composted in fast reactors.

At the end of the day, though, this model needs to be backed by strong policy. For one, the government must set up a ' taluka development corporation' and invite private sector participation in setting up power and water utilities in the taluka. Secondly, the corporate sector will not only produce power and water, but will also be allowed to carry out its distribution. Most independent power projects have been bogged down by disputes regarding distribution. Besides, since power and water production is from renewable sources, the corporate sector involved in this programme must have the benefits available to renewable energy sources. Lastly, municipal corporations must allow only environmentally sound vehicles to ply within the town. The number of vehicles in a taluka is small, and it may be possible to manage this issue.

In a democratic society, sustainable taluka development will decentralise economic, and hence political, power. Decentralisation is India's best bet against economic deprivation, corruption and an unaccountable ruling elite.

Anil Rajvanshi is director of the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra

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