Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why is the CPI(M) cutting its nose to spite the country's face ?

On May 23, and on June 21, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) issued statements on the nuclear deal. The burden of the two notes was roughly similar — questioning the government’s statements and figures on the energy issue and claiming that these were being fudged, or slanted, to promote the Indo-US nuclear deal.
The May note accused the government of negligence resulting in a temporary shortage of uranium in the country. And the second claimed that the government had launched a “massive disinformation campaign” that nuclear energy was not only a solution to the shortage of electricity in the country, but also the oil price rise. The June statement then went on to claim that the best way to tackling the problem would be to build coal-fired plants, and while indigenous technology based nuclear energy could be used in the future, it would only meet 8 per cent of our electricity demand. Another leading statement claimed that our energy security could be better served by the Iran gas pipeline. The central point of the notes, however, was that the real intention of government policy was to promote India-US strategic ties.
I see nothing sinister in developing India-US ties. If the country needs strategic ties, I would rather have them with the world’s dominant power than any wannabe. The US has, in the past, helped us some and harmed us some, and there is every indication they mean well in the future, no doubt for their own reasons. On the other hand China, which the CPI(M) looks to as an ideal, has not helped us any, harmed us more, and their future attitude towards India remains a big question mark.


I don’t know where the CPI(M) has got its figures from. The ones I am offering comes from a 2007 Planning Commission Report of the Expert Committee on Integrated Energy Policy which was chaired by Kirit Parikh. Essentially what it says is that to maintain an 8 per cent rate of growth, as well as our commitments, moral if not legal, to a regime demanding the least possible carbon emissions, we would require a fuel mix that would annually comprise 350 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe), 150 Mtoe of natural gas, 632 Mtoe of coal, 35 of hydro power, 98 of nuclear, 87 of renewables of wind, 185 of non-commercials like fuel wood.
But while coal and oil will form the dominant fuels in any mix, the addition of nuclear and other fuels will make the crucial difference in the sheer availability of power, as well as our carbon footprint. India would, in this scenario, which is the greenest among those offered, have carbon dioxide emissions of some 3.9 billion tonnes in 2030(compared with the 5.5 billion tonnes for the US today).
It is possible, for example to forgo the nuclear in this mix, but the balance would have to be made up with oil, natural gas or coal, of which two are getting more expensive by the day, and there are quality problems with the third. The Parikh committee had calculated that if we forgo the nuclear and natural gas import option and go exclusively for coal, then, because of the poor quality of our coal, the requirement would increase from 415 million tonnes in 2004-5 to 2,500 million tonnes in 2031-2. Since the quality of Indian coal is deteriorating steadily, the actual requirement could be nearly 3,000 million tonnes. The massive increase in coal requirement could actually compel us to import huge quantities of coal. “This,” the committee noted dryly, “would actually increase our energy dependency on imports even more than today.” Think also of the logistics of storing and transporting it all over the country.
In the May statement, the CPI(M) had criticised the government for misleading the country about uranium shortages. The facts are that Indian uranium is of extremely poor quality. Efforts to open mines in Kadapa district in Andhra Pradesh and in Meghalaya are being held up by public protest. The CPI(M) of all parties should know that land acquisition for industrial projects has become a major issue in the country. But the real issue is not availability but the need to hedge against technological obstacles that may appear in the way of our ambitious three-stage nuclear programme which has not yet reached stage two and is only scheduled to reach its pinnacle by 2030 and beyond.
Incidentally, the Parikh committee’s nuclear scenario of 63,000 MW by 2030 is based on the import of 6000 MW of light water reactors because it was written before the Indo-US nuclear deal was signed. The CPI(M) statement’s sneering reference to having only 8 per cent of our energy demand met through nuclear energy in the future can have an alternate track if reactors and capital could be freely imported. It is only through a conscious policy begun in the 1970s does France today use nuclear energy to produce 79 per cent of its electricity, and most of this is through imported uranium.
Actually India’s only hope for some kind of self-sufficiency lies in being able to bridge the current shortage of uranium, stabilise its fast breeder programme and go on to the advanced thorium reactor phase. The payoff would come in the post 2050 period when it could produce 275,000 MW of electricity.


Proposing that India achieves energy security through the Iran gas pipeline is also intriguing. I am not against the pipeline deal because I think that India needs all the energy it can get, from whatever source it can locate. The problem with pipelines, not just from Iran, is that they point only in one direction. That is, the gas can only flow in one channel from the source to the destination. In the event of a disruption, it leaves industries and users downstream high and dry. The Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline has to traverse through Iranian and Pakistani Balochistan. Google and find out how many times the gas supplies between Pakistan’s Balochi gas fields and the rest of the country have been disrupted by Baloch nationalists in the past year. Both parts of Balochistan are disturbed areas and relying on a smooth gas flow through the region before peace has been restored there is being optimistic, to say the least. Ties between India and Pakistan are also better, but things are not quite normal. And expectations that Iran will somehow behave differently from other rich oil and gas producers can only be termed naive.


The CPI(M) and others involved in the current debate need to focus on the larger issue of the country’s energy needs. Here is a perspective: China’s current annual consumption of energy is 1100-1200 Mtoe (Parikh Committee draft report figures), the USA is 2400-2500. India consumes just 327 Mtoe. Even if we use the most optimistic coal-based scenario, we would just about consume, in 2030, what China consumes today. The fact staring us in the face is that there can never be energy independence for a country that is short of almost every energy source. No matter how you game it, we will be dependent for oil and natural gas on the outside world, and they will make up between 35 (optimistic) to 42 (pessimistic) percent of our energy mix in 2030.
The CPI(M) seems to have no problem with India depending on Iran and the OPEC cartel, which has allowed prices to rise from $60 to $130 in less than a year. They do seem to be getting worked up about depending on the Nuclear Suppliers Group cartel whose membership comprises not just of the US and its allies, but Brazil, South Africa, France, China and Russia.
Actually the only way we can have energy independence is to go back to Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of an India comprising of independent village communities. The alternative is a policy of promoting energy efficiency and conservation, and to spread our risks. These issues don’t move the CPI(M). In their blinkered geopolitical vision, opposing the US is more important than a prudent effort to secure the country’s energy future.
This appeared in Mail Today June 24, 2008

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