Energy Efficiency

MPs can drive home policy changes — by asking the right questions

Question on non-compliance by thermal power plants in Rajya Sabha should have driven home a bigger point. Problem, however, was the question itself   

 
By Soundaram Ramanathan
Last Updated: Monday 23 March 2020
Singaji Thermal power plant. Wikimedia Commons

Questions by legislators in the Rajya Sabha can go a long way in pushing for policies or modifying an existing one. But highlighting the administration’s shortcomings and seeking accountability is one thing, driving action from them another. Change can be imminent — if Members of Parliament (MPs) ask the right questions.

Take this, for instance. On March 17, 2020 session of the Rajya Sabha, Minister of Power RK Singh said 14 power plants were issued notices under Section 5 of Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 for not complying with new emission norms.

This was in response to a question posed by Biju Janta Dal MP Bhaskar Rao Nekkant. 

While the MP's question did demand statistics on the number of plants penalised, it did not underline the delay in implementation or the government’s tardiness in handling the issue.

All it asked for was data from the ministry, which the latter submitted. The question did not prompt change.

The MP could have asked the government about initiatives taken to push compliance. The objective should have been to elicit information that held the government accountable and drove change.

Another interesting development that could have been factored in was National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd's (NTPC) decision to water down norms for lethal nitrogen oxide emissions.

The NTPC reportedly claimed that cutting down emissions at power plants had proved ineffective in India.

“NTPC submitted a report to the Union power ministry in the matter, which was then forwarded to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) and the Centre Pollution Control Board (CPCB). I was asked to comment over the findings and was appalled by the lethargy and tactics adopted by company to dilute norms,” said an expert who did not wish to be named.

According to him, the company claimed manufacturers failed to demonstrate the efficiency of cutting down emissions.

“In reality, only erosion of catalyst was an issue at the plants, which was because of inappropriate practices of power stations and their failure to provide right velocity. It is very evident that these were delay tactics.”

“This reflects a gap in understanding of regulations, their impact on the society and current stage of progress. Legislators come from diverse backgrounds and have different skill sets. The government should consider giving special training to sensitise them on new regulations. This can improve implementation,” said Nivit Kumar Yadav, senior programme manager, Centre for Science and Environment. 

In the last five years, several legislators asked questions on pollution from coal-based thermal power plants (see table).

However, most of them could not drive meaningful action. Since 2019, legislators seem to be disconnected with the ground situation. With the present state of affairs, timely implementation of regulations remains a distant goal.

Pollution from coal-based thermal power stations remains another grave concern. In her 2020 budget speech, Union Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman had recommended closure of old coal-based thermal power stations to reduce air pollution.

 

Year

Question

Asked by

Inference/Comments

March 2015

Will the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change be pleased to state: (a) whether it is a fact that thermal plants are the worst polluters in the world, if so, the details thereof; and (b) the measures taken by the government to curb the pollution caused by them [1]

Ritabrata Banerjee

Informed question that led the MoEF&CC to notify new emission norms by 2015-end 

July 2017

Will the Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change be pleased to state:

(a)  whether it is a fact that 19 thermal power plants across the country are polluting the air of the respective cities, if so, the details thereof, plant-wise;

(b)  if so, whether those polluting power plants are not complying with the prescribed guidelines of government, if so, the details thereof and since when these plants are not having pollution control equipments; and

(c) whether these power plants have been penalised for causing pollution and if so, the details thereof [2]

Kapil Sibal

Question focused on specifics, larger issue ignored.

 

However, it had limited impact. The Union government closed few thermal power stations in 2017.

January 2018

Will the minister of power be pleased to state: (a) whether it is a fact that power tariff in the country is expected to go up gradually by anything between 50 paise and 125 per unit; (b) whether it is a fact that retrofitting costs range from 1-2 crore per MW, while for new coal fired plant the cost is pegged at 5 crore per MW; (c) whether it is also a fact that with such high cost, power producers have been dragging their feet over retrofitting due to lack of clarity on who will bear the burden; and (d) if so, the details thereof. [3]

AK Selvraj

Informed question that also led the power ministry to issue guidelines on pass through of environmental costs.

In May 2018, the MoP released this guideline.

However the legislator failed to track the issue.

July 2019

Will the minister of power be pleased to state: (a) whether the country has any commitment to use clean coal technology for thermal power generation in accordance with Paris Climate Agreement, 2016; (b) if so, the details thereof; (c) whether government has drawn any action plan to introduce clean coal technology to reduce emission from thermal power plants to help check pollution and climate change; and (d) if so, the details thereof. [4]

Sambhaji
Chhatrapati

The question was in disconnect with government's efforts. No action was taken.

 Questions asked in the Rajya Sabha in the last few years on thermal power plants. Sources: [1] CSE India [2] India Environment Portal [3] Power Ministry website [4] Power Ministry website

 

 

 

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