See the light

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

imageThere is no question that India desperately needs to generate more power. The energy indicators say it all. It has the lowest per capita consumption of electricity in the world. This when access to energy is correlated with development, indeed with economic growth.

Let us not dismiss the need for energy as a simple issue of intra-national equity when the rich use too much, while the poor do not have enough. This may be true for other natural resources, but energy scarcity is more or less all around. Data shows India’s energy intensity has been falling—we do more with each unit of energy produced. In industry it is down by 2.2 per cent between 2004-05 and 2008-09, and in the agriculture and the service sector by as much as 4.7 per cent annually.

The reason is not hard to see. India has one of the highest prices of energy and it does pinch industry and the domestic consumer. So saving is part of the energy game. This is not to say we must not do more to cut energy use and be more efficient. The point is there are limits to efficiency.

But why am I stating the obvious? The reason is that even though India knows it needs more power, it does not realise it will not get it through conventional ways. It will have to find a new approach to energy security before the high-sounding targets of the power ministry are derailed and ultimately energy security compromised.

Just consider what is happening in the country. There are widespread protests against building major power projects, from thermal to hydel, and now nuclear. At the site of the coal power plant in Sompeta in Andhra Pradesh, the police had to open fire on some 10,000 protesters, killing two. In the alphonso-growing Konkan region farmers are up in arms against a 1,200 MW thermal plant, which, they say, will damage their crop. In Chhattisgarh, people are fighting against scores of such projects, which will take away their land and water. The list of such protests is long even if one does not consider the fact that most of the coal needed to run them is under the forests, and the mines are contested and unavailable.

Hydel projects are no different. Environmentalists are protesting the massive numbers of projects planned on the Ganga that will virtually see it dry over long stretches. The Assam government is asking for a review of the hydel projects in upstream Arunachal Pradesh because it believes these are resulting in floods. Assam’s 2,000 MW Subansiri project is in trouble because state-appointed experts say the dam could have serious impacts in downstream areas. The two yet-to-be-built nuclear projects— the 6,000 MW Jasapara project in Bhavnagar and the 9,900 MW Jaitapur project in Konkan—are already facing people’s enormous anger.

We are not seeing the big picture as yet. We still believe these countless struggles are a minor hiccup. People’s anger can be disregarded, paid for or just squashed. But I believe not. As I have argued in the past, this is the environmentalism of the very poor; people across the country are fighting for survival. They know their poverty will only be replaced by more destitution if and when these projects are built.

It is time we accepted this fact. It is time we accepted that many of the projects, planned or proposed, will not be built. The availability of land and water will be the real constraints on growth. So what do we do?

One, we need a law that makes basic energy a fundamental right of all Indians, like the right to employment, education and now food. This will ensure people are empowered to demand energy as a right and that the state has to share whatever it has with all. This will create real conditions for generating energy in new and different ways. Generation could be decentralised and local or even big and grid-connected. This will give every community a real stake in power development.

Two, India must accept it cannot build all the projects it has planned. It has to prioritise them taking into consideration the cumulative capacity of the environment. In other words, it needs to assess how much water can be taken away for hydel projects while ensuring natural flow in rivers at all times. It must allow only those projects that do not compromise the environment and people’s livelihood. Currently, this is not done. Every stream and every district is up for grabs. In Arunachal Pradesh, there are 10 projects on every stream; some 150 MoUs have been signed, adding to some 50,000 MW of power generation (roughly one-third of the country’s current installed power). Just one block of Chhattisgarh, Dabra, has nine thermal projects in a 10 km radius. MoUs have been signed for 49 projects in Janjgir-Champa district of Chhattisgarh. This madness must stop.

Three, India needs to enhance the capacity of environmental regulators, so that they take correct and clear decisions. Projects need more careful scrutiny, and the assessment must have credibility in people’s eyes.

We must first realise the need to change the game of development. Only then will there be light.

—Sunita Narain

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  • While I completely agree with

    While I completely agree with Sunita, I think we should, at the same time, begin to seriously contemplate rationally about our energy use and needs.

    Every time I see a 100-watt bulb on somewhere, an office in Delhi designed with darkened interiors with its lights on in the daytime, or a light bulb left carelessly on during the day, or even at night without any beneficiary around, I wince at the thought of the many rural houses that could have been lit with this ÔÇ£wasteÔÇØ. TodayÔÇÖsÔÇÖ technology - 5 watts is enough to provide a small rural house with its basic lighting needs. And todayÔÇÖs technology - water supply is also almost directly related to power (as some agriculturists and all Delhi-dwellers will tell you).

    Einstein once said, ÔÇ£We cannot hope to find a solution to a problem with the same mindset that created itÔÇØ, and thatÔÇÖs essentially what weÔÇÖre trying to do when we say letÔÇÖs just produce more, period!

    80% of India lives in the villages. 54% of IndiaÔÇÖs rural households are not electrified. 60% of the households that are electrified, receive less than 50% of their power requirement, due to short-supply. And urban India, apart from the few privileged localities, is no less aggrieved.

    I am currently on one of many field trips I have made to Bihar, and no rural ÔÇ£electrifiedÔÇØ village I have yet visited receives more than 2-3 hours of electricity per day, and that too mostly in unearthly, useless hours of the night. So I am not speaking from a boardroom table somewhere in Delhi with thoughts randomly coming through from my urban grey cells.

    Around 6,40,00,000 unelectrified households in India depend largely on kerosene or other oils to light up their homes, as do the over 3,20,00,000 electrified but undersupplied households. A medium size rural household burns an average of 3 litres of kerosene or other oils on 2-3 lamps for home lighting per month, or approximately 36 litres per year. 1 litre kerosene gives out 2.6 kgs of CO2 during combustion. Thus CO2 emissions per household works out to around 90-95 kgs per year. Given this, the total CO2 emissions from these 6,40,00,000 unelectrified households would be around 60,00,000(6 million) tons per year. The electrified rural and semi-rural households that do not get adequate electricity, emit an additional 15,00,000(1.5 million) tons of additional CO2 per year from oil lamps or candles.

    While hydro electricity, which shoulders just over 30% of IndiaÔÇÖs power burden, is the most convenient and relatively cleaner alternative for lighting, production will never be able to match the demand. Further, the waters of all major Indian rivers has been steadily decreasing over the years, giving rise to doubts as to how much of IndiaÔÇÖs energy requirement will hydro electricity be able to supply. Sunita has also already highlighted the social impacts of setting up hydro power projects - a problem that has no easy solutions. If you look closely at the locations of presently exploding naxalite movement - they are actually spread out in the most mineral and resource rich areas of India.

    Thermal and diesel power generating plants shoulders over 65% of IndiaÔÇÖs power burden and emits billions of tons of CO2 annually. Not only are these means extremely polluting, they also depend on resources whose availability and costs could be subject to instability. Increasing the nuclear power generation capacity is also being considered.

    But are all these sustainable and clean alternatives? Will they be able to fulfill our needs? For how long can we rely on them? They all depend on raw materials that will not just dry up one day, but even presently have a negative impact on the environment.

    Given this, do we need more of the same? Is just ÔÇ£give-us-moreÔÇØ going to solve our problem or is it going to aggravate it further.

    Our demonic desire for electricity and electrical appliances is far, far beyond our actual needs, not just creating an unfulfillable power demand, but also ruing our health, and contributing to CO2 emissions. We also needlessly waste electricity on excessive and unnecessary lighting use. Numerous offices and residences in urban areas have darkened interior designing and keep their lights on the whole day. Have you ever given thought to the over 60,00,000 vehicles in Delhi that work like hot air blowers, spewing around 500 million litres of hot air per day at temperatures of averaging 80-90 degrees centigrade, and contribute to the extra heat in the summer. In the earlier days the type of houses suited to the local environment and the trees ensured that no fan was needed and a small hand fan could do the trick if it got a bit uncomfortable, today an air conditioner has a difficult time keeping up with our bring-the-climate home need. We completely ignore the fact that power is rapidly becoming a priceless commodity. The way we use power, it gives a picture that we seem to think that electricity comes solely from the wire that the Electricity Department has connected to our houses, forgetting that it has to be first generated and then fed into it.

    We need to seriously rationalize our power needs. We donÔÇÖt want to end up fighting wars in the oil rich nations to supply ourselves with our power greed (like some other nations we know, do).

    In the national context, IndiaÔÇÖs demand for power hovers around 2,00,000 MWs, while the supply is at around 1,50,000 MWs, with not much hope of additional long-term, clean and viable generation possibilities in the horizon to adequately meet the shortfall. ThatÔÇÖs a current deficit of around 50,000 MWs.

    Almost over 50%, i.e. at least over 70,000 MWs of power we are presently consuming, is essentially for lighting.

    Of the presently available renewable power sources, independent, stand-alone solar power generation is already commercially viable for lighting, both for rural as well as urban applications. If just our lighting needs were to be met by solar power (the only real source of power we can rely on till the very end), the saving would almost, if not completely, offset the shortfall, leaving us almost enough power for our other needs, and thereby probably eliminating or lessening paralyzing power-cuts, and also the dire need to add on more generation capacity - which could then continue that the present ÔÇ£leisurelyÔÇØ pace - pun intended!

    But if this is to succeed at all, the operations will have to be free-market. Solar home lighting systems will need to be designed specifically for rural as well as urban home lighting applications and at a price that the respective populations can afford. The products will have to be consumer-centric and not government-centric. Subsidies discourage open commercial sales, and needs to be strategically done away with over a short period of time. This will also pave the way for consumer-centric research, manufacture and sales operations driven by demand. And demand for lighting is something there is no shortage of.

    So pull up your socks, solar sector. Stop fishing perched on the back of the government, and face the market straight up. And if you do not have the brains or the guts to do so, make sure you begin to prepare your children to develop night vision capabilities to see in the dark, and to train them to train their children after them.

    We are already seeing the first of the food riots, water riots and power riots, with people beginning to protest violently against shortages. If not addressed with the utmost urgency, a serious, perpetual and civilization-collapsing law and order situation is in the making, not to mention the direct and indirect impact on commerce, industry and the economy.

    We need to be really discerning and careful when it comes to consumerism and realize that this has trigged a consumerism race that is a trap not easy to get out of - ÔÇ£A nation that sees wealth in things and not in men is ultimately doomedÔÇØ.

    Ever since the electric rice cooker came, diabetes has become commonplace. And why not? Earlier, the starch from the rice would be strained off and fed to the animals, ensuring a healthy, correct amount of starch intake for the humans, and good milk-producing starch for the cows.

    Cosmetics donÔÇÖt make us more beautiful, it just changes our perspective of what is beautiful. Draupadi is described in the Mahabharata as a coal-dark-skinned bewitching beauty. Today, our measure of beauty, spurred by the bombardment of television advertisements telling us so, lies 99% on how fair we are. We need the right amount of pigmentation in our skin to protect us from the sun and the radiation, depending on which continent we are in, and this is ensured by evolutionary procedure. Do anything to alter that and we begin to take high risks. No amount of sun-block cream is going to prevent the inevitable. Further, the chemicals that go into formulating cosmetics, dissolve through our skin into the bloodstream and find their way in, to be precipitated in the various cleansing and discharging organs of the body, like the liver, kidneys, uterus, breasts, etc. Cancer of these parts have become commonplace, especially among the affluent, city dwellers who use more of such products.

    The ÔÇ£richerÔÇØ we get, the size of our refrigerator increases, and we want to look more ÔÇ£beautifulÔÇØ. When the size of our stomach essentially remains the same, irrespective of how ÔÇ£richÔÇØ we get, what is the logic behind the increase in the size of our fridge. And what is really the point of looking 30 when youÔÇÖre 50?? When youÔÇÖre 50 youÔÇÖre supposed to look 50!!! Inner dignity and confidence gives you a natural glow and beauty that no one can ignore, irrespective of the colour of your skin, the shape of your face or body, or your age. Good-looking has actually got nothing to do with shape of your face or body. Look around you, assess the worldÔÇÖs idols, and see how in many, many cases, charisma overshadows ÔÇ£looksÔÇØ. Remember the early days when Sharukh Khan was just starting off in the entertainment world, and was not thought of as being good-looking. Now girls faint at his ÔÇ£looksÔÇØ and married women secretly hope that they were still single.

    All this shows what actually influences our ÔÇ£needÔÇØ decisions - itÔÇÖs our bloated ego and not our ÔÇ£needÔÇØ. You can justify to the contrary as much as you can, but try telling a Mr. Ambani to take a bicycle to work, or a Demi Moore to try and look naturally beautiful.

    I could go on forever explaining the vanity of every material object we term as ÔÇ£necessityÔÇØ by modern standards.

    I am not saying give up everything. If you can, well and good, but at least simplify your life sensibly, by seriously weighing the risks - short-term as well as long-term, singular as well as collective, and, local, national as well as global. Or risk everything - yours and also that of your children. If you think global warming is only a few degrees rise in temperature and walking around naked in future will make us comfortable in the heat; consider the natural calamities, diseases due to germs becoming active for longer periods and mutating into other lethal strains, water and food scarcity.

    LetÔÇÖs not go too way back in time. Among the many possibly man-induced recent natural disorders, check out the recent floods in Pakistan. The next one could be very, very uncomfortably close, or could fall from the sky right over your head. And donÔÇÖt for a moment think youÔÇÖre completely safe in the city. If your luck runs out you could easily be caught in the wrong time in the wrong place. Remember the very recent incidents of wall collapses, tree uprootings and underpass floodings, electrocutings, etc, in Delhi? And donÔÇÖt be too surprised if in a another few years time, besides your car, you will also need a boat in summer to get from ITO to South Extention. Remember 20 years ago when they said - who the hell is going to buy water in bottles!

    In the very possibly short long-term, how would you feed your hungry children if you had a suitcase full of money but no food or water in town, or having to contend with a murderous rampaging mob that is willing to fight you to death for the last pouch of food, or a mug of water from the drying rivulet, while youÔÇÖre clutching on to your suitcase full of money?

    So be warned!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with some of the

    I agree with some of the points made by Sunita. I think it is a waste of money in trying to build mega power projects.Power generation must be decentralised with every taluk having a power project meeting rural household, street light, agriculture and other needs of rural population for acluster of villages. Since the consumption point is near the generation point, T&D losses will be negligible. These power plants can be connected at the district level, but not to the national grid. High energy consuming industries must be totally delinked from these power plants.Power must be metered and must not be free.Subsidy to the poorest of the poor should be decided by the Panchayat and district administration and cost to be shared by the local population and district administartion.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Though i agree that careful

    Though i agree that careful assessment (environmental and requirement based) is required for mad rush of power projects, i tend to disagree on some specific suggestion pointed here.

    1. Right to electricty - I do not see it as the major driver. Afterall what happeend to other basic rights that we had for past 60 years.

    2. I do not concure that we have enough power, though our per capita statistics may be low. But that is primarily becasue of we are consuming whatever is produced at the moment. Ask any small industry in many of the much hyped industrial corridores across country, they run almost half of their businesses on the gensets and i see them as a major environmental hazards rather than the mad rush to make high capacity power plants. Have a chance to visit some of the popular markets during the power cut, the smog that you will eat and breathe will make you change your opinion on the high capacity power plants.

    3. We must try to create our own power strategies. Building power plants in the areas where we have the flood situations invariably every year, would be one of the way to go. May be the power plant works for half a season, but it could help us plan the disasters happening so badly in the flood affected areas. We need to think something that is never done, something localized for us.

    I fear puting so much of regulation will aslo push us back in the demand vs supply paradigm. The planning should be in line with the requirement of a developing nations.

    Having signed an MoU is nothig that we are going to cherish in future, having worked on them and delivering the safe power is what our kids will cherish in their times to come.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply