Calcutta Notebook


People across the country are agitated at the long hours of power cuts in this sweltering heat. They have great expectation from Shri Narendra Modi who has successfully provided continuous electricity to the people of Gujarat. In the main, he implemented the policies made by the Centre with a gusto. The framework of electricity production and distribution such as coal linkages and grid connectivity was set by the Ministry of Power. Job of the Gujarat CM was to effectively implement these policies. This model cannot work at the Central Government. The task here is much different. As PM Modi has to handle issues of energy security, oil imports from Iran, saving the rivers like Ganga from hydropower and impact of power plants on health and environment. It is well known that demand for electricity has been increasing steeply but supply is lagging resulting in blackouts. Modi was successful in increasing supply in Gujarat. The same formula will not work at the Centre because there are many limits to generation of electricity that were not faced directly at the state level.

There are two ways to manage the mismatch between supply and demand: Increase supply or Reduce demand. The one-sided supply-side solution of increasing generation had been adopted by the UPA Government. It was doomed to fail because of ever-increasing demand. It was like the Government is trying to catch the shadow. The demand increased as much as, or even more, than the increase in supply. A more circumspect approach of simultaneously limiting demand was required. That task now falls upon Modi.

The demand-side approach is pooh-phooed on grounds that new technologies will enable unabated increases in electricity generation. It is indeed true that nuclear, solar and shale gas inventions have enabled much greater increases in electricity generation than thought possible previously. However, human history teaches that there have been limits set by nature that mankind has not been able to transgress. Grand ancient civilizations such as that of the Indus Valley have collapsed as a result of excessive exploitation of natural resources. It would be better, therefore, to err on the side of caution. Let demand follow increase in supply; not the other way round. Thermal, nuclear and hydropower each have their negative environmental impacts that cannot be wished away. Even wind and solar may have negative impacts that will become clear as time progresses.

Paul R Ehrlich, author of the 1968 trend-setting book The Population Bomb said the impact of any population can be expressed as a product of three characteristics: the population's size, its affluence or per-capita consumption, and the environmental damage inflicted by the technologies used to supply each unit of consumption. The impact can be reduced by reducing size of population, reducing per-capita consumption, or by using environment-friendly technologies of production. The environment-friendly technologies are typically more expensive. That leads to higher cost of production and thereby lower level of consumption. The two solutions of reducing per-capita consumption and using environment-friendly technologies, therefore, coalesce into one-that of reduced consumption. Control of population is a long term solution. The short term solution has to necessarily be driven by a reduction in consumption. Since most consumption is made by the rich, it is they who have to reduce consumption.

There is increasing awareness of this problem in global forums. The Preliminary Draft report of UNESCO-sponsored Ethics of Climate Change in Asia Pacific project, 2009 on Energy Equity and Human Security stated: "While making energy accessible and affordable to all to fulfill their basic needs, energy use for luxurious purposes can be reduced without infringing basic human rights. Thus, the ethical demands to meet concerns of equity can also mean restrictions for those who make excessive use of energy... those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are often not those who have contributed to global warming the most. Poor and marginalized, as well as future generations have to endure the consequences of the actions of wealthy in the present and the past."

The Washington-based World Resources Institute says in a paper Equity, Poverty, and the Environment : "Too often, public policies favor affluent people and regions, enriching a few powerful political and economic elites while passing disproportionately large social and environmental costs on to poor and disenfranchised populations. Poverty reduction—especially for the poorest—can be greatly enhanced through policies that promote fair distribution of natural resource benefits. In high-inequity, high-poverty countries, equitable access and fair distribution can be more effective than economic growth alone in reducing poverty."

Yet, the Ministry of Power has been single-mindedly trying to increase generation of electricity to meet the demand. It wants to meet the demand of electricity irrespective of from where it comes. All consumers are equal in the eyes of the Ministry. This equality is like the equal right of a wrestler and a challenged person to reach the railway booking counter; or the equal right of an athlete and a 5-year-old girl to receive food from a langar. The same is happening in the electricity sector. The rich consume the electricity before it can reach the poor. It is profitable for the distribution companies to supply bulk power to the rich rather than manage thousands of small connection. The cost of distribution as well as collection of the dues is lesser in large connections.

This unending increase in consumption of electricity by the rich is unsustainable both from the ecological and social standpoint. Increased generation will lead to ecosystem stress; while inequality in consumption will lead to social stress. In truth diversion of mere two percent of present generation of electricity is sufficient to meet the lifeline consumption of the 30 kWh per month per household of the 30 crore-odd unelectrified households in the country. The reduction in welfare of the rich by cutting their consumption by two, or even four, percent would be minimal while the increase in welfare of 30 crore households would be phenomenal.

The main point is that every country has a particular resource endowment and it has to perforce live within them. People of Saudi Arabia cannot hope to get water in quantities that people of Bengal are used to. Similarly one should not aim to match the electricity consumption of resource-rich developed countries like the United States. Watching a theater on the street corner does not require much electricity. The same theater requires much electricity if watched in an air-conditioned enclosed theater. The welfare of Indian masses can be enhanced by street theater as much as by air-conditioned theater. The real challenge before the country is to decouple welfare and electricity consumption beyond a minimum level. But Modi is not listening!

Vol. 47, No. 15, Oct 19 - 25, 2014