The rural perspective on the India-US n-deal

By Sudhir Rao, IANS

The recent past has seen the Indian polity in a state of entropy as a result of the proposed India-US nuclear deal. The Left Front ideologically considers the deal as a threat to India’s sovereignty. The electronic and print media has covered a range of issues related to the deal. However, despite 70 percent of the Indian population being rural, the ongoing debate has ignored the perspective of the ‘aam admi’, the common man.

Support TwoCircles

The rural perspective is important for several reasons, the appalling power situation being one of them. The 2006 India Rural Infrastructure Report of the New Delhi-based think tank the National Council for Applied Economic Research estimates that only 44 percent of rural households have electricity and that too for 40 percent of the time. Even a five-fold increase in power supply will prove inadequate.

Erratic supply of electricity is one of the main reasons for sub-optimal productivity in much of India’s farming land. Many lift irrigation systems in states such as Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa have turned defunct. Seventy percent or more of irrigated land is dependent on ground water. One in four landholding families have wells and pump sets. Non-availability of electricity has prevented thousands of farmers from going in for a second crop.

The cost of diesel, an alternative, has more than doubled since 1999. Farmers are neither able to improve their livelihoods nor contribute to an increase in overall food production. Agriculturists are treated as residual customers by the electricity departments.

The rural non-farm sector is not reaching its full potential as a source of livelihood because of undependable, expensive or unavailable electricity. For example, during long power cuts, the phone booth franchisees use stopwatches to bill their customers when the batteries run out. The atta chakkis, or flourmills, become financially unviable when power cuts occur.

Students cannot study and have to literally burn the midnight oil. Households miss their favourite television programmes. Mini chilling plants for milk and cold storage for agri-produce remain dreams. The health system is dysfunctional as X-ray machines; cold-chains for vaccines and lab testing equipments are electricity dependent. Dry cells, the most expensive power source, are popular with the aam admi in rural India – some two billion units are sold annually. Used batteries are not environmentally benign either.

According to some experts, energy from coal is cheaper than nuclear energy. While this is true, it may not be so in the future. Around 75 percent of India’s coal reserves (90 million tonnes) are in Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh. Coalmines are not bottomless pits and more land will be required in future. Land acquisition is an emotive and contentious issue and the costs of such an exercise include displacement of farmers including tribals.

The example of the Punjab State Electricity Board’s land acquisition for coal mining in Pakur district in Jharkhand is a revelation. The CPI-M and a local people’s organisation took up an agitation, which resulted in a 10-year time overrun for the project, but succeeded in getting a somewhat better rehabilitation package.

Given the fact that barely 15 percent of Jharkhand’s households have electricity, and the reality of time and cost overruns, a larger question emerges. How long should, and will, the rural and tribal citizens of Jharkhand (and Orissa, West Bengal and Chattisgarh), allow more and more of their land to be used for producing coal – which generates more than 40 percent of India’s current electricity requirements?

According to the Working Group of the Ninth Plan 91997-2002), nearly 2,000 acres of land will be required per million tonnes of additional coal production. It is estimated that 125 kg of coal is required to burn a 100-watt bulb for eight hours a day for a year (without counting the transmission and distribution losses which are high in India).

Hydroelectricity is considered to be an ideal and clean source of energy. However, environmentalists have slowed down projects like the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat/Madhya Pradesh, which lead to the displacement of a large number of poor living in the rural areas. Another such example of displacement of people is Sikkim’s first mega hydel power project on the Teesta river. The new rehabilitation policy (in the pipeline) of the government may be well designed; but the implementation of a poor-friendly policy remains a major challenge.

Gas- and oil-based power plants may seem a good option now. However, availability of any hydrocarbon-based fuel is doubtful in the long term. Non-conventional sources of energy are considered to be benign with respect to the environment. In a large country like India, where the supply is unable to catch up with the demand, scaling up, seasonality and recurring maintenance of windmills, biomass and solar energy will have to be grappled with.

The current debate over the India-US nuclear deal has seen different arguments: dependence on US (sovereignty), high costs, nuclear waste, Chernobyl etc. Some of this may be true, but all sources of energy have some negative points. Put all eggs into as many baskets as possible, lest a couple of baskets with the eggs break up in the future. Risk hedging needs to be the mantra to ensure electricity for all. France, which is slightly bigger than the combined areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan, has 58 nuclear plants.

A popular French riposte to the question of why they have so much nuclear energy is “no oil, no gas, no coal, no choice”. India is lucky to have choices, but if India wants the poorest of the poor farmer living in the hinterland to benefit from electricity, there is no alternative but to have an optimum generation mix, which includes nuclear energy.

The demand for uninterrupted power supply is no longer confined to the urban rich and industry; it comes also from rural areas. If India has to become a developed country, rural India has to be provided with adequate power so that livelihoods of many can improve. Dependence on a foreign country is hardly an issue to take to the rural voter. After all, Chinese pump sets and Australian wheat are flooding the rural market.

The aam admi in rural India is not bothered about the source of the electricity, as long as he gets enough for his pump set, his kids get a lamp to study under and his wife gets power for her ‘atta-chakki’.

(The author, a graduate of the Institute of Rural Management, is based in Canacona, Goa, and has over 20 years of experience in this area. He can be reached at [email protected]