Burning both ends

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We generate electricity by destroying our rivers and forests only to pump out the remaining groundwater

By Jay Mazoomdaar

Closing in Sanjay Dubri tiger reserve near Singrauli coalfield in MP
Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

THE WORLD’S biggest grid failure has put the green ministry in the dock yet again. India’s power shortage is between 10-13 percent and power projects are apparently held up due to delay in environment clearances (EC). So to many, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is the villain in our growth story, by disallowing coal extraction in forest areas and optimum harnessing of rivers.

The MoEF has indeed decided to have a relook at the new projects and also examine the legality of cutting down the capacity of operational hydroelectric plants on the Ganga. Elsewhere, not a single power project is held up in green tape.

NHPC Dibang needs diversion of 5,056 hectares of forestland but is facing stiff opposition from locals. Jaypee Lower Siang received terms of reference in 2007 but is stalled due to public resistance. The Cheemei gasbased thermal power plant by the Kerala State Industrial Corporation was considered for EC but the promoters are yet to work out the blend of natural gas and refrigerated liquefied gas, which they propose to use for the plant.

NHPC Middle Subanshri and NPCIL Mithvirdi Gujarat have not even submitted EC applications. Saurashtra coal-based project is yet to apply for forest clearance (FC). NTPC Bijapur Karnataka was granted EC this January. Essar Madhya Pradesh and Reliance Power Chitrangi Madhya Pradesh received ECs in 2010. The Essar plant is already operational, although final FC for both projects is pending.

The 11th Five-Year Plan projected a target of 50,000 MW of additional thermal power capacity while the 12th Plan aims at another 1,00,000 MW. During 2007-11, the MoEF has granted EC to 2,10,000 MW of power, which is 60,000 MW in excess of the combined target of 1,50,000 MW by 2017. Yet, imaginary green roadblocks are blamed for tripping up growth.

It is common knowledge that India loses up to 40 percent of power in transmission. But while investing heavily in new power projects, the government or the private sector refuses to plug the holes. India’s power transmission and distribution segment, says a report, is facing an investment shortfall of Rs 3.68 lakh crore. If this convenient blind spot in our policy is not shocking enough, sample this double whammy.

The recent grid failure was triggered by Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh overdrawing electricity to feed the agricultural demand. Overdrawing is common and frequent during the June-July sowing season of water-intensive crops such as paddy. The pre-monsoon data showed that the storage level at the reservoirs was low — only 16 percent at Bhakra — due to irrationally heavy withdrawal earlier in the year. Then a delayed and deficient monsoon tipped the scales.

Groundwater usage in north India is the highest in the world, thanks to the power subsidy

Thanks to power subsidy, groundwater usage in north India is the highest in the world. During 2002-08, groundwater depletion in Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi was equivalent to a net loss of 109 cu km of water — double the capacity of India’s largest surface water reservoir. To run a million water pumps to flood their agricultural fields, these states also demand the biggest chunk of power. To meet that demand, growth pundits want every river dammed and the last forests mined for coal.

So the fragile Brahmaputra landscape is being torn apart in Arunachal Pradesh where at least 135 large hydel power projects are billed to produce 57,000 MW. On the Ganga, 17 plants are operating with 14 under construction and 39 proposed. According to the latest Greenpeace report, coal mining threatens over 1.1 million hectares of prime forest in 13 coalfields in central India.

Business as usual will lead us to a suicidal scenario in a not-so-distant future when we will have destroyed all our forests and rivers only to suck out the last few drops of groundwater. It takes no great insight to grasp the urgency of a policy shift towards promoting less water-intensive crops and investing in renewable energy. If only we could begin by fixing the leaky distribution network.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist. 
[email protected]

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