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Catastrophic policies 'gathering pace': sops to hydro projects, plan to export solar power

By Shankar Sharma* 

Some of the recent newspaper articles/ reports (Climate risk: 9 Indian states among top vulnerable places in the world, Temperature above normal in February, experts flag urgent need for action plan) should indicate the kind of very serious problems facing our communities in the near future. These are all due to a complete lack of focus on a holistic view of the true welfare of our people.
While trying to solve one problem (such as meeting the growing demand for electricity through the so-called renewable energy sources), the overall approach of various governments around the world, especially in India, is to conveniently ignore the other aspects of human welfare such as adequately caring for the health of our natural resources.
Whereas, it is true that various country governments have been doing so for many decades, what is shocking is that the same blunder is continuing even in 2023, when a sense of global climate emergency should have been at the point of our focus.
One of the articles reported, “The vast majority (80%) of 50 provinces facing the highest climate risk to their physical infrastructure by 2050 are in China, the US, and India, according to a ranking released by Cross Dependency Initiative, which specialises in climate risk analytics for companies, banks and regions.”
If the projected impacts of climate change on our hugely populous, and resource constrained country/ state cannot be visualised effectively, it should not be difficult to take cognisance of the issues such as the projected high temperatures and/ or heat waves in the next few months, as in one news article above. Whereas the rich people may address such threats by spending a lot of money, the vulnerable sections have no wherewithal to do so.
The simplest, sustainable, and most effective pathway to address such immediate threats of Climate Change is to assiduously protect the existing green cover, and to expand the same by many folds by deploying all possible resources at our disposal. But what is happening at our societal level is the exact opposite; which is to continue to destroy the small patches of forest and tree cover remaining.
Such catastrophic policies are gathering pace even in very dry and hot districts such as Bellary in Karnataka, wherein an approval has been given recently to start mining in a green patch of forested hills by felling about 90,000 mature trees. The extreme heat impacts on the locals should become obvious to all but to our authorities. All this for earning only a meagre sums of foreign exchange, since this mining project is only for export purposes.
It is a sad reflection of our society's approach to human welfare that the issues such as large scale land acquisition (consisting of agricultural lands as well as thick natural forests), having calamitous impacts on most of the affected communities in particular, and on the entire humanity in general, are not being deliberated on as diligently as needed/ feasible. Such natural resources are continued to be treated with a shocking sense of callousness/ indifference.
Country can produce annually solar modules that can generate 100 GW and become a net exporter of power, says Secretary, Ministry for New and Renewable Energy, Bhupinder Bhalla. 
High customs duty on Chinese components, land acquisition challenges hamper switch to non-fossil sources. But should India plan to export solar power when the cost of producing such surplus power in the country can be vastly more to our people as compared to the meagre amounts of foreign exchange dollars?
At a time when it has already been proved that the marginal cost of every additional unit of commercial energy to be generated is huge to our society in the form of diversion of forest and agricultural lands, displacements of people, increased demand for water and many kinds of minerals etc., why should our country even consider exporting such energy at enormous costs to our people?
Can civil society groups remain mute spectators for such disastrous policies?
To promote pumped storage hydro-power projects in India, the Ministry of Power has proposed giving incentives such as tax breaks, easy environment clearance and providing land at concessional rates.
According to IRENA’s 1.5°C Scenario, if the world is to completely decarbonise and meet the climate goals set in the Paris Agreement, hydropower installed capacity, including pumped storage hydropower, should more than double by 2050. This will require annual investments in hydropower to grow roughly fivefold (See: IRENA report highlights hydropower’s evolving role).
It can only be termed as scandalous and, hence, very sad that our authorities continue to ignore the ecological costs of building dam based hydel power projects, even in 2023, when it has become evident that the destruction / submergence of vast areas of forests/ vegetation to build dams will cause vast amounts of GHGs such as CO2 and CH4. It can be stated as even more scandalous that the concerned authorities are conveniently ignoring various credible alternatives available to achieve the same objective of a pumped storage plant.
Instead of making all possible efforts to minimise those economic activities causing GHG emissions, the global societies are only throwing money on unsustainable activities such as carbon credits. And there is no reference even to reduce the global level demand for energy and materials; but only technological options.
India has finalised a list of activities that can be considered for trading in carbon credits in the international market under article 6 of the Paris Agreement.
The proposed Deocha-Pachami coal mine in West Bengal's Birbhum could be the world's second-largest coal mine but the local indigenous and lower caste population is protesting the mine for the impact it will have on the environment and on their rights over land. Project affected people's true welfare needs and/ or their concerns seem to have no relevance to our authorities.
In view of the fact that there is no diligently prepared National Energy Policy in the country (even though only a draft policy was released in 2017 by NITI Aayog), such ill-conceived and/or unsustainable and knee jerk statements/ policies on energy/ electricity have been coming thick and fast, and can be expected to continue to haunt us in the foreseeable future.
There seems no credible answer forthcoming from any of the responsible govt. on such issues. It is left to civil society to make relentless efforts to make our authorities provide answers to these and other concerns.

No concern for environmental and social impact

Meanwhile, a video link was sent to me on a lecture given by the MD & CEO of Startup India at "Treasury Leadership Forum 2023". This lecture was described, in the associated message, as "absolutely breathtaking. An impressive and impactful presentation, on why anyone should now be investing in India."
The presenter seems to have churned out numerous stats on how India's business environment is excelling so much so that more than $500 billion worth of FDI has flown to India in the last several years. Hundreds of start ups are reported to be coming up each month; how India will be no. 1 in the number of such start ups; how India will be the destination for global investment by 2047, when each of about 140 crore people in India will be spending many hundreds of thousands of dollars each year; thereby making India a top GDP country etc.. There were loud cheers for such an "absolutely breathtaking, impressive and impactful presentation".
Whereas, it seems natural and easy to feel elated about such financial growth at such a breakneck speed (it seems even fashionable nowadays to talk about such high growth prospects), what has not been even referred to in the presentation is the environmental and social impacts on our masses (either because of ignorance or indifference) of such a steep financial growth, which inevitably will have a deleterious impact on our natural resources.
In this context, it is worthy of drawing one’s attention to what is stated on the topic by the draft 'National Resource Efficiency Policy' (NREP), 2019 by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). It says among others:
"Driven by rapid economic and population growth, the demand for natural resources, especially materials have grown manifold over the last few decades. In the endeavor for economic growth, natural resources have been largely indiscriminately exploited, adversely impacting the environment and biodiversity. Further, cross linkages between resource use, climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss has been scientifically well established. Meeting the demand for products and services, of rising population with increased aspirations has led to mostly indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources and would further lead to increased pressure on resources resulting in environmental degradation, thereby raising sustainability concerns.”
It goes on to say:
"India, as one of the fastest growing economies with GDP at 2.6 trillion USD, has increased its material consumption to six times, from 1.18 billion tons in 1970 to 7 billion tons in 2015, however this economic growth has been coupled with inherent cost on natural environment. The material consumption is projected to more than double by 2030, in order to provide for increasing population, rapid urbanization and growing aspirations. The projected pace of economic development is going to put pressure on the already stressed and limited resources and may lead to serious resource depletion and environment degradation affecting the economy, livelihoods and the quality of life. Further, material use is also closely associated with the problem of increasing wastes, which when suitably processed could deliver valuable secondary resources."
On the current status, the draft policy lists many concerns:
“High import dependency of many critical raw materials; 30% of land undergoing degradation: highest water withdrawal globally for agriculture; 3rd highest CO2 emitter, responsible for 6.9% of global CO2 emissions; much lower recycling rate at 20-25% vis-à-vis of as high as 70% in developed countries (Europe); low material productivity compared to global average; 3rd largest material demand (year 2010); resource extraction of 1,580 tons/acre is much higher than the world average of 450 tons/acre .”
With the kind and extent of growth in industrial and commercial activities, as eloquently bosted in the above presentation, should it not be critically important to diligently consider the associated impacts on the critically important elements of nature, such as air, water, soil, biodiversity etc.?
But it is impossible to notice even an iota of such concern in scores of large size, high cost and high impact projects being planned/ implemented all over the country.
Whereas, the presenter has boasted about how we should feel proud of such high growth achievements by 2047, he has conveniently ignored even referring to the associated impacts on the environment, and hence on the vulnerable sections of our population.
There is a critical need for civil society to undertake due deliberations on such strategic policy issues of critical importance to our people from the perspective of Climate Change alone, if not anything else.
---
*Power & Climate Policy Analyst

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