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Mainstream, VOL L, No 20, May 5, 2012

Maldevelopment – Its Sustainable Alternative for India

Sunday 13 May 2012, by Subrata Sinha

This piece was sent sometime ago but could not be used earlier for unavoidable reasons.

Facing the double whammy of climate change and its affluent society-triggered dwindling non-renewable resources, the Indian energy policy is at crossroads! The Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear calamity is leading to a global moratorium on nuclear energy. Japan apart, Europe has opted out of new nuclear power plants. Germany has shut down half its reactors and decided to shut down all by 2022, while the USA has not built any plant since 1973; preferring renewable, and even coal-based alternatives; and a lifestyle change!

Very pertinent is the statement of the anti-nuclear activist-physicists, M.V. Ramana and Suvrat Raju, that social opposition to nuclear reactors, large hydroelectric dams, thermal power plants, and automobile factories is due to their dependence on land and water competing with the farming community needs, while heated water and radioactive effluents into the sea affect fish workers. Significantly, last year the Union Health Secretary told a Parliamentary Standing Committee that “India is nowhere prepared to meet an eventuality that may arise out of nuclear and radiological emergencies“.

Proven genetic mal-effects on future generations are deadly. The recent fatal explosions at a waste disposal site at Marcuele (France); Chernobyl the (former USSR), Three-Mile-Island (USA) are glaring examples. Leakage during waste transportation is a major risk even in sparsely populated countries like the USA. Possibilities of accidents, waste transport and disposal are horrifying to visualise in densely populated countries like India. A nuclear installation takes about a decade or more to be completed and requires colossal finances.

Apart from the public agitation against the Jaitapur coastal nuclear plant in Maharashtra, the Kudankulam plant in the Tamil Nadu coastal tract—even after a ‘hot run’—has been shelved due to an indefinite fast by the local people. Mithi Virdi (Gujarat), Fatehabad (Haryana), Kowada (AP), and Gorakhpur (UP) are also facing the storm of public fury. Nuclear energy is not a quick-fix sustainable energy alternative in the global perspective; the Indian public are also joining in the chorus against it.

Yet, the Indian Prime Minister is hell-bent on the nuclear alternative as the panacea that “.will play an important role in our quest for a clean and environ-mental-friendly energy mix”. Paradoxically, he uttered this in West Bengal, where its Chief Minister wisely discarded the Haripur proposal and abandoned the nuclear path after protracted public agitation. Surrendering to the international nuclear ‘nation-cum-contractor cartel’ poised to reap a golden harvest from the nuclear system, the PM instructed nuclear agencies to reassess the safety of the Indian units, reiterating this in the UN General Assembly. Does the Union Government really believe that the nuclear ‘jackpot’ can provide energy for all or is it not bothered about them at all?

THE Nuclear Energy Fact Sheet listed the main alternative and sustainable sources without risks of nuclear accidents, proliferation, waste transportation and disposal. These are Bioenergy (biomass); Geothermal (renewable; from deep within the earth); Wind turbines (converting kinetic energy into electricity); Solar (energy captured for heat and electricity); Hydrogen (from renewable sources, to convert chemical energy directly into electricity); Tidal (using ocean movement—with turbines for electricity).

However, this package does not fit the Indian rural compulsions. The population being predominantly rural, daylight and manual/draught animals energy satisfy their subsistence level ‘need-and-not-greed’ existence!

Decentralised, technologically scaled-down, renewable and non-conventional energy alter-natives within community management capabilities, have to be promoted. Taking a cue from numerous success stories, innovations to tap even the canal gradients, local biomass are two possibilities. Tidal energy in the coastal areas has been tried successfully in Kerala; ‘run-of-the-river’ and mini-hydel units are also feasible. Locally operational, non-conventional energy based power systems have been installed in Mizoram. With the environmental and transmission costs factored in, innovative solar units for local level use shall be economically feasible.

There are numerous traditional small-scale irrigation practices like draught animal-driven powered water wheels (rihats) and large leather pouches (kumhats) from open wells, with the dung useful as organic manure and ‘gobar gas’ units for lighting. The ‘Johads’ of Rajasthan are community managed small, earthen check dams for water harvesting in the Alwar district of Rajasthan, with Rajendra Singh (Tarun Bharat Sangh) projecting it in the international arena. The small rural communities, having umpteen innovations in their lexicon, should be the main actors in the renewable and sustainable energy alternatives in rural India. With the valid rage against nuclear power, such alternatives provide the key to a sustainable and safer future befitting Gandhian diktats!

The author is a former Deputy Director General, Geological Survey of India.

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