Sunday, April 15, 2007

Empower the people

Let’s cut the crap and talk reality: India, would-be superpower, is a country without power. I mean electricity. Most of this nation is still literally in the dark.
I experience this every time my reporting work takes me outside the brightly-lit, superficially modern cities that I live and work in. A tour of Amethi, the parliamentary constituency represented by Rahul Gandhi – and his father before him – brought this home to me in 2004. Amethi had eight-hour power cuts daily.
It’s like that for most towns and villages across the country. In Bihar, where I wandered all around Raghopur, Rabri Devi’s constituency, most places don’t even have electric wires – they have been cut away and sold off. Only the poles remain.
In Maharashtra, the district of Sindhudurg on the Konkan coast, from where former chief minister and now revenue minister Narayan Rane comes, experiences an average of eight powerless hours a day.
The statistics show that these scattered observations are part of a larger picture of powerlessness.
The Draft National Electricity Policy of 2004 set the goal of providing access to electricity for all households in the next five years. In the same sentence it went on to say that, “As per Census 2001, about 45% of the households do not have access to electricity”. If we remember that there are over 1000000000 people in this country, 45% of the households would mean close to half a billion. There's no way that many more people in India will get electricty by 2009.
Our per capita electricity consumption was 561 KWh in 2001 according to the UNDP Human Development Report. This was up from 173 in 1980, a great leap. However, it's less than that of countries like the Bahamas (5407) and Trinidad and Tobago (4219). Let’s not make comparisons with the US etc just yet. Everyone always wants to know how we compare to China in everything – they use up 1139 KWh per capita.
Per capita electricity consumption is an indicator of development. We’re really not doing so great after all. However the per capita consumption is rising, which means shortages are getting worse. Our ancient thermal plants are creaking under the strain. The darkness is spreading; it has already reached the borders of Bombay, and every summer, when temperatures are at their peak, along with demand, it hits Delhi.
Meanwhile, important people pontificate on pipelines and energy security. These dickheads live in VIP areas where there NEVER any power cuts. They should live in places where there’s no electricity and the temperature is 45 degrees Centigrade.
If they did, they might want to adopt an alternative approach to energy security – one that places the individual at the center of the planning. This is what I had proposed at a conference on South Asia in the UK in 2004.
The basic idea was to treat energy security as a subset of human security. Not a top-down, hubs-and-spokes-only model, but a more inclusive, bottom-up model that starts with the goal of providing electricity to every individual, and then adopts any technology that will enable this in a sustainable way.
So, for example, energy cooperatives and distributed generation might help; connect these to an intelligent grid if feasible. Strengthen and modernise the existing grid. Use run of the river micro-hydel; promote bio-diesel in a big way. Let jatropha be cultivated as a cash crop. Empower the people.
It’s happening anyway. Every time the power goes and the generators drone to life, it becomes apparent that people who can are already making their own arrangements. Surely the underprivileged can be empowered to do the same, in a way that does not strain our scant oil reserves.

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