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Karnataka rainfall shortage 'not a rarity'. Needed proper energy conservation policy

By Shankar Sharma* 

This is regarding a few serious problems facing the people of Karnataka, which needs urgent and serious attention of the state government.
The larger issues are the serious rainfall deficit in the monsoon season this year, and the consequent crippling power shortage. Many recent developments, as highlighted in some of the news links below, should be seen as valid and serious concerns, and also as some of the feasible options for the state to satisfactorily address the life threatening concerns for our people.
Whereas, the official announcements seem to be downplaying the seriousness of power shortage, the ground realities visible to all of us due to the serious shortage of rainfall indicates that the combined effects of shortage of rainfall and the consequent power crises are serious enough to require adequate attention from all sections of our society, especially from the state government.
The seriousness of the power crises can be best exemplified by a news report, which states that the Energy Department has decided to go for power rationing as the State is facing an extraordinary situation of demand for electricity due to the failure of monsoon.
Whereas, the rainfall shortage has resulted in vastly reduced power generation capacity of the hydel power plants, it has also led to abnormal increase in power demand, mostly from agricultural sector.
In view of the inevitable linkage of the rainfall shortage to power shortage in the state should make our planners to consider various economic segments of the state from a holistic perspective, and take a diligent view of all the associated issues, instead of looking at power shortage in isolation.
Another news report has stated: 
"The department requested all consumers to assist the state in saving energy and help it tide over this temporary phase of shortage. The department will soon list priority and non-priority consumers for the purpose...
"Farmers across the state complain that for the last 15 days, the duration of three-phase power supply has come down from the regular seven hours to three hours and in some places even half an hour. A majority of farmers say that the government, through erratic supply of three-phase power for pump sets and borewells, is snatching away their only chance of saving the standing crops. “There is no fixed timing to supply power to the pump sets. For the last 15 days, we have received electricity for more than three hours only on three days. The crops have almost dried up”.

The public also have been experiencing frequent power cuts, many times a day in some places, without any prior notice or without any known maintenance outages, which can only mean energy conservation measures without the acknowledgement from the department.
What is relevant in this context is the harsh reality that in view of the fact that about 73% of the land area in the state is arid/semi-arid, and about 52% of the state's land area is officially declared as drought prone, the rainfall shortage/ scarcity in the state should not be seen as a rarity. The experience of the last few decades should establish the fact that rainfall related concerns are never too far away for the state, and hence all feasible measures should be built into our state level planning to diligently consider this frequent/ permanent feature.
In this larger context, a diligently prepared state energy policy with strong linkage to the other sectors such as water, forests, agriculture etc. looking into the near future, say 20-25 years ahead, should be imperative, but sadly the state seems to have no such policy. Recently Gujarat and Maharashtra have adopted a visionary renewable energy policy, which is paving the way for a sustainable future. Few ither states such as, Rajasthan and Orissa are also reported to have come up with such state level emery policies.
It is a deeply disturbing question as to why every state and the Union government itself have not made diligent efforts to bring such renewable energy policies? Karnataka's energy department should make concerted efforts as a priority to formulate and effectively implement a diligently prepared policy framework to optimally harness the huge scope existing in the state for distributed renewable energy. The interested public and the civil society groups should be given an opportunity to effectively participate in the preparation of such a policy.
Whereas the continued loss of forest cover, which is only about 20% of the state's land area as against the national forest policy target of 33%, can be seen as a primary contributing factor for the frequent rainfall deficits, the continued loss of vegetation cover due to diversion of agricultural lands in the name of various developmental projects, is exacerbating the water scarcity scenario.
Various power projects themselves, such a pumped storage plants and land based solar power parks, have been demanding the diversion of vast stretches of of forest and agricultural lands, even within the wild life sanctuaries and rain bearing tropical forests and river valleys. The solar power park at Pavagada, in Tumkur district, is one of the largest solar power park in the world, and has consumed about 11,000 acres of agricultural land, even though the same was never known as fertile agricultural land, but which was supporting various kinds of rural employment activities.
Media reports indicate that few mores such solar power parks, including a proposal to extend the solar power park at Pavagada, are being planned, which should be a massive concern from the ecological wealth perspective of the state.
Many regional language media houses have also focused on the latest proposed for solar power park in the core catchment area of TG Halli reservoir. Vijaya Karnataka has also carried an editorial on the same topic severely criticizing the proposal.
There have been similar credible societal level concerns with regard to many of the proposed projects in Western Ghats (such as Sharavathy river valley pumped storage hydro project, Varahi river valley pumped storage hydro project in Someshwara wildlife sanctuary, a dam based hydel project in Kavery wild life sanctuary etc.), which if implemented will lead to the destruction of many thousands of acres of rich tropical rain forests.
It is not a tall claim to state that the effective consultations with the relevant stakeholder groups and domain specialists for each of such destructive project proposals can reveal suitable alternative options, through which the destruction of forest lands can be completely avoided or minimised. But the question is whether our bureaucrats and politicians are interested in pursuing such democratic processes; as against the allegations of encouraging the commercial benefits to a few private contractors/ timber lobbies.
It should also be emphatically stated that, whereas frequent deficit in rainfall in the state cannot be wished away and hence must be seen as probable in any year, our developmental policies must not lead to further degradation of forest and agricultural land wealth.
Instead of diverting the precious land resources, whether forest lands or agricultural lands, for power and other so called developmental projects, our state must diligently consider various other techno-economically attractive options available to the state.
For example, the vast potential of the renewable energy in the state can be optimally harnessed in the form of distributed types such as roof top solar power projects and agri-voltaic power projects instead of large size solar power parks.
Recent technological advancements in the area of renewable energy sources, especially the solar power and the battery energy storage systems, as exemplified by a news item, must indicate the sustainable energy pathway for the state as well as in the country.
The humongous potential of renewable energy sources (REs) at the global level can be appreciated by a statement by the Union Power Minister as in the news link below. This potential is of much more relevance to India, and Karnataka in particular.
Optimal usage of distributed energy sources, such as roof top SPV systems, and battery energy storage systems (BESS) can minimise or eliminate the need for additional fossil fuel, or hydel or, solar power parks in the state, which all demand diversion of forest/ agricultural lands and have impact on fresh water resources in the state.
In this larger context, the state government and the Union MoEF&CC, should undertake a diligent review of all the associated policies/ practices, which are deleteriously impacting what was once a rich biodiversity in our state/ country.
A diligently prepared renewable energy policy for the state, keeping in objective view the overall welfare of all sections of the state, including the flora, fauna and general environment, has become critical and urgent to safeguard the true interest of the state in the long term. Failure on part of the state government to act diligently and urgently in this regard will bring unmitigated disaster to the people of the state both in the short term and long term.
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*Power & Climate Policy Analyst. This article is based on representation by the author to KJ George, Energy Minister, Govt of Karnataka, and Eshwara Khandre, Forest & Environment Minister, Govt of Karnataka

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