Tuesday 4 August 2015

India’s Antique Elite and Their Unsolvable Energy Question

For the first time since the days of the Mahatma, an Indian leader has appealed to the people of India to participate directly in developing the country, and giving a helping hand to the poor. The Prime Minister’s efforts are laudable, and require the full support of all citizens. Unfortunately, unlike Gandhiji, he is unable to shame other leaders for their lavish lifestyle or undeserved perks. Voices have been raised by the middleclass that they see no reason for giving up their LPG gas subsidy when parliamentarians are petty enough to hold on to every possible perk and benefit at great public cost.
A recent NSSO report says that even today, in the seventh decade after independence, two-thirds of rural households still use firewood for cooking, and even the poorer third of urban families. Not only does this ruin the eyes of women, as the Prime Minister so kindly pointed out, but kills over half a million of them every year through respiratory diseases, besides increasing carbon emissions, loss of forest cover, leaching of top soils, water run-offs, floods, devastation, and enfeebling the roar of the tiger, which the elite  are delighted to hear. According to the NSSO calculation, India might need to provide around 15 crore new LPG connections, if we really want to help the poor. If all of the middleclass generously and patriotically cooperate, they can help no more than 15% of poor households, and that is no realistic solution. So what is to be done?
The Government of India earned international brownie points by being the first to establish an independent ministry of renewable energy, but after the applause abandoned it to light-weight politicians who needed a ministerial berth. To make more sure that it would trouble no one anymore, a web of rules and regulations have made its functioning opaque and unworkable.
Despite India being a sunshine subcontinent, the government has done little other than ritualistic moves to promote solar energy. Concentrated Thermal Solar Power units in the megawatt range have been set up in several other countries, including the United States. Spain has over 50 such units, while India is beginning a research project on this technology. Very few of India’s six lakh villages place a demand higher than of 5 kw. Decentralised PV solar units, locally managed by panchayati bodies or people’s associations can help meet most of rural India’s energy needs, but this step could also lead to sharing of some power democratically with the grassroots. However government policy since its East India Company days, despite the ritualistic 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in support of such democratic dispersal of power, has firmly believed in tight centralisation of power. So, demand-side management of power needs, while commonplace in developed countries, remains only a lecture room concept in India.
Perhaps, as a gesture towards India’s contribution to the global struggle against climate change, the MNRE bodies like NEDCAP, or its Telangana variant TNREDCL, could do aggressive marketing of the box-type and the parabolic type of solar cookers. Large scale use of such cookers could save everyone a lot of money and reduce firewood consumption by a third, if not by half. It is not beyond the wits of our very clever bureaucrats and bankers to devise a methodology to enable the poor to acquire these cookers and pay back over time. But such sales will afford no profit to our corporate moghuls, or present media-savvy photo ops to leaders. Helping the poor in small ways has not been any leader’s priority, except when voicing his intention to do so at electioneering times. And environment concerns are strictly relegated for international conferences.
ONGC has put up huge placards in airports and other public places in support of the Prime Minister’s call to you to give up your LPG subsidy. This is the wealthiest public sector unit with annual profits in the range of Rs 25,000 crores. Hence it has the capacity to think out new ways of reducing public expenditure and our dependence on fossil fuels. Strangely, despite the usual ritualistic directive that petrol should have 10% additive of ethanol, little is done to achieve this. In fact sugar companies have a disincentive to produce and sell ethanol since the government stipulated purchase price is less than the market price offered by liquor companies for the distillate. It is a known fact that since ethanol is easily miscible with petrol, it could even form 25% of the fuel without affecting vehicle performance. If India were to follow the example of Brazil, where all vehicles run on pure ethanol or ethanol-mixes, several thousand crores of rupees in foreign exchange could be saved. With that money, ONGC could give LPG cylinders to at least a crore of poor households. Vehicle owners would be happy since the cost of fuel would decrease, sugar companies would make better profits, consumer price of sugar would be steady, and several crore farmers growing sugarcane would have more sustainable incomes.

It would be surprising that the authorities are so reluctant to follow the Brazilian path to bio-fuels when clearly so many sectors would benefit. However, it seems the strong liquor lobby is against ethanol use since it might push up the price of liquor they acquire from sugar mills. Governments and politicians are sensitive to their pressure since excise taxes form the greatest part of state revenues, apart from the profitable black market in this industry. Here again well known technology exists which can easily increase liquor production by a factor of ten if sugar companies would increase distillates as balancing products when seasonally there is over production of sugar, decreasing prices. Again, such management would benefit many sectors, including sugarcane farmers who suffer periodically when sugar mills refuse cane.

Such national refusal to utilise available technologies and increase production of energy and profits would be inexplicable if not for the attitudes that dictate decision making among the country’s elite. To take advantage of the different ways of utilizing renewable energy resources the elite must involve many small local and private bodies in decision making. They are aware that this would be the first step in diluting their power, and they refuse to do so. Their vested interest to retain control of the destinies of the country in their own restricting hands makes them ideologically cling to the platonic ideal of ‘philosopher kings’ who would benignly care for the masses. Such an elitist ideology makes them spend unconscionable sums on nuclear energy, which even after several decades has produced very little energy while continuing to pose for millennia a  threat to all life, even under the best of management conditions. Plato conceived his philosophy 2500 years ago when Greeks depended on the work of four slaves for every free man. It is a vast pity that our elite believe in such antiquated ideas stifling progress, and reducing the living standards of the great majority to no better than that of semi-serfdom. 

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