THE STRUGGLE FOR POWER

Last month there was a massive power failure in which almost half of India went dark. Although the snafu was rectified within days the situation exposed something very rotten in the system. It showed that in order to please their constituents the politicians used more electricity than their share. Technical decisions as to how much electricity a grid can handle was done by the nontechnical people. Engineers and technicians entrusted to look after the system obeyed the demands of their political bosses that eventually caused a total breakdown. The failure of grids was the result of excessive ineptitude.

People of India are familiar with shortages. Those who supposedly live in plenty can’t even avoid the impact of shortages in the market place. A couple of years ago there was a shortage of onions. This almost caused riots. Shortages of consumer goods such as cement, sugar and dahl are common. There are millions of people all over India who do not have access to electricity. Those who have, face power shortages constantly. Among them, those who can afford have to use generators. Those who have electricity even for an hour feel lucky. Therefore, blacks out for a few more hours or for a few more days did not matter much. People are used to such failures of power. This time too they managed their affairs by ignoring it. Ordinary folks obsessed with daily chores may go around the issue of the power failure. But their government cannot.

The progress of the country rests on the access to electricity. India is embarking on its 12th Five Year plan. It aspires to have a higher level of production in both industry and agriculture. No matter what the goal, electricity is the mother’s milk for development. Therefore, generating electricity becomes a fundamental necessity.

Mother India provides her children with plenty of milk and honey. But she does not have enough oil or natural gas that they need. Therefore, the sons and daughters of mother India have to devise ways to face reality. They could harness waterfalls and rivers. However, building humongous reservoirs like Sardar Sarovar or Hirakud submerges huge areas of land. Invariably, it is the poor Adivasis or tribal folks who lose their homes and hearths for the benefit of others. Acquisition of private land by the government through a decree is not going to work. Then there is nuclear power. It is a clean source of electricity, no doubt. Japan used to depend on it. The US, Britain and France still get a large chunk of their electricity from nuclear power plants. However, looking at the Fukushima incident in Japan and the Chernobyl meltdown in Soviet Russia one gets a chill by thinking about it. India’s nuclear plants are not very far from centers of population. If anything happens at these plants, tens of millions of people will be affected. Therefore, producing electricity through nuclear plants could not be a viable solution for India. Unlike many other countries, India lacks oil power. It is trying to help itself by participating in joint ventures and leasing or owning properties from friendly countries. However, depending on others for ones’ own prosperity and progress carries risks.

India has the world’s fifth largest coal deposit. Yet, in order to meet its electricity needs it does not produce enough coal and imports from other countries. By the year 2020 India stands to become the largest coal importer, surpassing China. Then what is the alternative? For energy, India has to rely on the sources it has. During the struggle for freedom it used its weaknesses - poverty, lack of education and fear - as India’s strength. Through the brilliant organizing skills of Gandhi and his followers the deficiencies did not matter. In the same way managers of India’s economic planning now must use the available resources on hand. India will need to spend 1.6 trillion U.S. dollars in its power sector. How much are they going to spend on solar power? How much on wind power? What about bio-gas that is being wasted all over India? Talking about bio-gas to solve India’s power shortage may sound silly. Didn’t Charkha play a big role in ruining Britain’s economic hold on India?

From a double digit rate of economic growth India has come down to a growth rate of 5.5%. Compared to countries like Italy, Spain or the US this is a healthy rate of growth. In order for this to continue, India has to depend on its own sources of power. Last month’s incident should be a wakeup call.



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