Millennium Post

Playing politics with energy

No expression is strong enough to condemn the project delays during the Congress-led UPA regime which, according to latest estimates, blocked gigantic investments to the tune of some 
Rs 20 lakh crore, in total. Assuming that 50 per cent of these projects, if taken up in time, were genuinely bankable ones, the country would have witnessed a gross investment of Rs 10 lakh crore in core and infrastructure projects. A good number of them were related to the power sector. It is difficult to believe that the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh government chose to sleep over those power projects when large parts of country have been witnessing blackouts or severe power cuts for years. Growing disputes over land acquisition by utility companies, environment clearance and fuel-linkage derailed the country’s power generation programme and, in turn, economic growth as populism and political brinkmanship took precedence over economic logic and social priority. The fate of at least 40 new power projects – coal-fired, gas-based, hydro and nuclear – was driven into uncertainty due to a sheer absence of political will on the UPA government’s part to see them through.

Never before had national and regional politics played such havoc with an important area of activity as electricity generation that concerns all. Almost all major electricity generation companies irrespective of their ownership pattern – government or private – are facing the heat of political negativism that ran across the country. They include such responsible central public sector enterprises as NTPC Limited, GAIL, DVC, NLC and NHPC, which operate under a constant glare of the national and state government administration and Parliamentary scrutiny, apart from some of the private sector giants like Tata Power, Reliance, Essar, Jindal, Lanco, Adani and CESC. One after another projects got delayed, mostly for want of political will and government decisions. In the end, the national economy and the society are made to pay a heavy price for them.

The country’s deteriorating political environment and constant centre-state frictions during the UPA rule was hardly conducive to planning and implementation of large core and infrastructure sector ventures such as power. The agitations engineered by a group of anti-nuclear protesters at a village, Idinthakarai, just outside the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu in which five people, including three children, were killed on the spot following a powerful bomb explosion, was a classic example of the extent of political brinkmanship that went into inciting a potential nuclear suicide that could have wiped out the entire population of the village and several other habitations nearby. Neither the Tamil Nadu government nor the centre, which were politically opposed to each other, took the incident seriously and acted with speed and sincerity to nab the miscreants and handing them down some exemplary punishment.

The Russian Rosatom-built Kudankulam plant is India’s newest show-piece atomic power project featuring some of the highest nuclear safety standards. Rosatom has built two similar projects in China which are performing extremely well there. Kudankulam reactors carry even more stringent safety standards to comply with the latest specifications of India’s state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation (NPCIL). The bombing incident near the Kudankulam power plant should serve a strong reminder to the governments – state and central – and political parties that the threat to nuclear safety is no longer confined to the state of reactor technology and external enemy attacks. The nuclear installations are facing threats from within. Even some small groups of local political maniacs, enjoying support from established parties or NGOs indulging in highly irresponsible politics, could force nuclear disaster in the country.

There is little concern among India’s political leaders about the fact that even at the current low rate of per capita energy consumption, which is almost 60 per cent lower than the world average that includes consumption in some of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, India would require at least a three-fold increase in its electricity generation capacity within the next two decades. A study report by global consultancy firm Deloitte, India’s energy requirement, which stood at 1,097 billion kWh in 2011-2012, would go up to 3,880 billion kWh in 2031-2032. The projection was based on the previous UPA government’s Integrated Energy Policy which anticipated growth rate of about 5.8 per cent per year of primary energy and 6.8 per cent per year of secondary energy considering an average GDP growth of eight per cent. Political ideologies can’t alter these basic scientific facts about the country’s present and future requirements of energy.

Irrespective of their political stands, parties have little choice of fiddling with sources of such large amount of electricity and technology preference to meet the national energy demand at affordable expense. The conventional coal-fired thermal power plants which now account for almost 70 per cent of electricity generation may not be able to meet even 50 per cent of India’s electricity demand in 2030. Hydro, renewable power and nuclear will have to substantially step up their respective shares in the energy availability mix. Among these sources of energy, only renewables such as solar and wind may appear to have unlimited availability subject to vagaries of nature making them somewhat undependable and unreliable in terms of constant availability. Solar power can’t be harnessed at night or during monsoon when sun hides behind cloud. Similarly, speed, direction and availability of wind are not constant. Thus, green energies as a stand-alone option is as impractical as it is unreliable and expensive. Hydro-electric power is almost entirely dependant on rains which feed rivers, streams and reservoirs.  But, they could and would play a very important role in India’s total energy-mix for the present and future.

The country has little choice but to accept that it has to install new capacities in all fields of generation – thermal, gas, nuclear and renewables – and for this it has to provide land, physical infrastructure for construction of plants and evacuation of power, access to cooling water and adopt a fuel policy taking into consideration the factors like availability, price and cost of electricity in terms of kwh over a period of time. A political movement or agitation against land acquisition for a power generation unit – thermal, hydro or nuclear – and transmission of electricity should be treated with same contempt as war against society or the nation. Broad political consensus and techno-economic logic must override narrow political conflicts and considerations over site selection or land acquisition for power plants and choice of technology. Political parties owe this to the nation. After all, water and power are integral parts of life and civilisation. Minus electric power, political power is meaningless. It is time that political leaders from all parties eschew differences on the need for clearing all hurdles to capacity expansion in the power sector and show a total unity with the Narendra Modi government to ensure its progress. This will automatically discourage disgruntled local groups to hold up new power projects. IPA
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