Dinosaur age ministers

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Monday 31 July 2000

India's Union minister for petroleum, Ram Naik, lives in the dinosaur age. Only Indian politics can throw up such archaic thinkers, given the pits it has reached. At the 16th World Petroleum Congress, held recent in Calgary, where some 2,000 people were demonstrating and asking for public policies to bring down the curtain on the fossil fuel age and bring in an era of renewables, this wonderful Indian personage could only say that there's "an element of extremism even in environmental issues... to take care of the environment doesn't mean that we shouldn't explore and bring out crude oil and gas from the land or from the sea."

Now what does one make of the Vajpayee government from this grand ministerial statement? Naik could have easily said that India was the first country in the world to set up a full-fledged ministry for renewable energy. If India is not interested in renewable energy then why does it have this glorified department with all its babus?

Maybe he does not want to glorify it as it was the Congress' handiwork. Then what about all the recent statements that the Vajpayee government is developing a policy for renewable energy which aims to ensure that as much as 10 per cent of India's electricity will come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2012 - possibly the most ambitious target in the world?

Does the petroleum minister not read the newspapers or is he saying that Vajpayeeji does not mean what he is saying and is just, for some unknown reason, trying to please Indian environmentalists with a lot of rhetoric? Or is it simply a case of the right minister in Vajpayee's government not knowing what the left minister is doing?

But Naik let his own thinking out of the bag when he said that "each country has to take action according to its standards of living," arguing that while Europeans could use 0.05 per cent sulphur diesel, "in India and Africa, it is not easily workable."

In other words, a poor country like India, which otherwise wants to be declared a nuclear power, is such an incompetent and third-rate country, according to the petroleum minister, that it must live with pollution - just the kind of argument that profiteering but visionless dinosaurs in Indian industry love to make.

Look at it another way, Naik is saying that industry should be allowed to make its profits while all of us drink polluted water and breathe filthy air, that the slow murder of people is acceptable to Naik and will be encouraged by the Vajpayee government.

This is after the double-talking Indian government made a solemn promise in Rio to strive for sustainable development and no sensible industrialist will today dare say in public that environment and development cannot go hand in hand. If asking for renewable energy makes environmentalists extremists, then by suggesting that we are so poor, or, we would rather say, so third-rate that our rich have the right to pollute us to death, Naik is surely a dinosaur. Come on, Mr Naik, don't you think we Indians are capable of doing a better job than just grovelling in dirt?

What is worse is that Naik is factually wrong. It was only in the summer of 1999 that the fossilised babus of the ministry of petroleum and natural gas had told the Supreme Court that it did not have the money to produce 0.05 per cent sulphur diesel. Yet well before the end of the year, without any Supreme Court orders, the Indian Oil Corporation (ioc) was giving Delhi diesel of this quality. And why? Because a private sector company, Reliance, was prepared to do so and take away ioc's market.

How did ioc find the money? Oh, that was no problem, it is just the babu s in the ministry of petroleum who were being difficult, said an ioc official. If the man at the top has no vision, what can one say of his minions.

What was most surprising is that Naik was also out of sync with his own international colleagues. At a time when he was saying that India must stick to dirty fossil fuels, someone no less than Sheikh Yamani, the former Saudi oil minister, was saying that the way the solar cell and fuel cell technology is growing, oil countries will have to leave their oil in the ground by 2030 (see p32-39: 2 h 2 + o 2 = 2 h 2 o + energy).

This technological optimism should be a matter of great interest to a country like India. Not only would it greatly cut urban pollution but it is also the only way to prevent serious global warming, something that is likely to harm India very adversely.

If Naik had any vision, he would have said, "We demand that the West move rapidly into a renewable energy era and not subject us to the vagaries of global warming and give us in developing countries the opportunity to move out of the polluting and climate-destroying fossil fuels." But poor Naik may have never heard of global warming.

- Anil Agarwal

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