Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The tiger as scapegoat

Since the interim order of the Supreme Court, tiger aficionados and the section of the media that is on the tiger trail have been largely occupied by the business of the ‘ban’ on tourism in core tiger areas
Meanwhile, in the tiger’s world, other threats loom.
You could pin one of these to the world’s biggest grid failure, when much of India’s northern half was plunged into darkness and chaos in what is said to be the biggest power blackout in history, affecting almost half the country.  but...electricity and tigers? 
If you read the media reports, you would know that like most things that go wrong these days––from power shortages to slow economic growth––the blame is tossed at the door of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). In fact, a popular news weekly which took up the power crisis two weeks in a row  blamed the “activist friendly MoEF policies”, since "Clearances for projects are a problem". In the same weekly's next issue, it listed, among ways to tackle power situation, doing away with forest clearances. If only the media––and not just this particular newsmagazine––dug deeper to ferret out the real issues instead of repeating the rhetoric.
First, I will quote ad verbatim a clarification from the MoEF on some of the projects that are said to be blocked: “NTPC Bijapur, Karnataka, is said to have been stalled due to lack of environmental clearance (EC). The fact is EC was granted on 25 January 2012.  Essar, Madhya Pradesh, is said to have been stalled due to lack of EC, but EC was granted  on 20 April 2007. The same applies to Reliance Power Chitrangi, MP, where EC was granted on 28 May 2010.” The Essar plant is already in operation, although, do note––final Forest Clearance  for both these projects is still pending.
One could go into why the plants have started operations without mandatory clearances, thereby circumventing  the law of the land or the largesse of the MoEF in granting clearances but that is another debate and let’s not get distracted. Instead, I would focus on a study done by Centre for Science and Environment which should put to rest the contention about 'green hurdles' causing the power crisis. The study explains that the 11th and 12th  Five Year Plans target 1,50,000 MW of additional thermal power capacity to be created and set up by 2017. In the period of five years until August 2011, clearances were granted for 210,000 MW of thermal power capacity. Do your math––it’s 60,000 MW more than what has been proposed till 2017. The study  threw up another shocker––thermal power capacity built in the same period is 32,394 MW. So, why are new projects beating down the MoEF door, when cleared projects are not being built?
Let’s talk coal––we hear that its shortage has brought the economy to its knees. Hence, say the growth pundits: let’s cut the remaining forests down and dig for the coal beneath. I cite a recent article in a prominent English daily authored by a former bureaucrat: “We can’t let environmental precautionism be converted into environmental ‘talibanism’. India’s first priority must be taking care of the energy needs of its people, rather than taking care of sundry animals. Thus mining must be allowed and reforestation can be done, hand-in-hand, in other areas to make up for the lost cover.” I will not even bother to trash such ill-informed writing––with conservation being dismissed as 'taking care of sundry animals' and natural, old growth forests-eco-systems equated to planting of trees, lest I digress again. The BK Chaturvedi committee (August 2011) had recommended that coal mining projects should be given automatic clearance, with exceptions only for projects in “dense” forest areas.  But, will that solve the coal crisis? 
I borrow here from Sunita Narian’s editorial in Down to Earth, “Coal India Limited (CIL) produces over 90 per cent of India’s coal; it controls over 200,000 ha of mine leases, including 55,000 ha of forest area. The estimated coal reserves with CIL are 64 billion tonnes, and the company produces 500 million tonnes per annum. Who is then responsible for the shortage of coal in the country?” There is another factor. India loses no less than 40 per cent of its electricity to inefficient transmission and there is little scope of addressing this given the shortfall in investments in this sector. While there are enough investments or new projects––where one gains control over natural resources––there is a  shortfall of a staggering $75 billion or nearly Rs. four lakh crore, investment in the transmission and distribution segment according to a recent report which also states that for every dollar invested in the power generation in the country, only half a dollar is put in T&D.
A recent report by Greenpeace How Coal Mining is Trashing Tigerland says coal mining threatens over 1.1 million ha. of forests, particularly tiger and elephant habitat. This study was restricted to just 13 coalfields in Central India, so the larger picture may  be far  worse. The tiger’s most unfortunate truth is that the ground beneath its feet is rich with minerals. The battle will only intensify, given that the demand for coal is set to touch about 2,300 mt per annum by 2030, from the current 600 mt. 
So, next time you leave the lights on needlessly, think of the impact on the tiger you so want to save. The power in your home is at the cost of the tiger’s forests, and best spent prudently.
The ecological impacts of hydel power projects has been well-documented. Yet, the North-east, one of the most bio-diverse regions of the world and home to several indigenous communities, has been identified as India’s 'future powerhouse' with no less than 168 large hydroelectric projects proposed with a total installed capacity of 63,328 MW  (Central Electricity Authority, 2001), which will submerge forests, devastate ecology and have grave impacts on the cultures and livelihoods of indigenous people.  There are 600 dams of varying scale that are either operational, under construction or proposed on the holiest  of our rivers, Ganga threatening its very existence. The impacts on livelihood of communities, biodiversity,  the surrounding natural ecosystems will be devastating.
Use of  existing capacity, efficiency of distribution and transmission and conserving energy are the key to a more ‘powered’  future while ensuring ecological security. Meanwhile, safe, viable alternatives to hydrocarbon and hydel energy are options India must explore on priority if it seeks a sustainable future.