I was asked to write on energy, land and water in an operative futures framework for the backgrounder to the HT Summit. I am to look at the future, not as an intellectual luxury but from the angle of the need to take decisions today. That is tough.
More so since the Prime Minister scrapped the Planning Commission on Independence Day. To be fair, however, the government had on August 24 called some so-called experts and asked what should be done instead. I was among them.
A number of us argued reform of the Planning Commission was an ongoing issue. A more focused body concentrating on issues such as energy, water and demographics, which have a long-term perspective, should be the agenda of the new body as in China.
The planning secretary put all this in a two-pager, which, we understand, is to be discussed in the National Development Council.
That’s good because as I write, it is Chacha Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary and he loved speculating on planning, even during the freedom movement. And so he said: “The more we thought of the planning business… The fascination of this work grew on me… but at the same time a certain vagueness and indefiniteness crept in…”
In 2002, on request from the UN, I had modelled India 2020 in a project in which experts were asked to look ahead for large countries. Both for energy and water, business as usual means unacceptable outcomes by 2020.
Unacceptable, not in moral or ethical terms but the growth process itself becomes unviable. A model outcome if we grow at 6-8% annually and have a consumerist ethos becomes that our low demand of coal is around eight lakh tonnes and the high version is two billion tonnes.
We have almost unlimited reserves of power grade coal. Mining and transporting it is not impossible if the corporate and public sectors are transparent and reasonably efficient, and the politicos and the CBI leave them alone.
But our lungs won’t be able to take it. Long before two billion tonnes, the Supreme Court and NGOs will stop it. So, it’s either lower growth, or different lifestyles or different forms of energy use. All easily said but difficult to practise.
Take water. Here the shortage is 10 to 25% of the projections. This makes the business as usual line impossible because water is life. A number that is interesting is Solid Waste Disposal (SWD), a polite word for shit.
This has to do with the Swachata Abhiyan. SWD ranges between 85 and 130 million tonnes. As we reach 2015, 2020 is not far off and the work the Planning Commission did before it was decommissioned as it were, and some non-government modellers, showed while were some slippages, we are pretty much on track (to perfidy). So much for the death route or Siva (Mahesh). What about Life (Vishnu)?
2020 is five years away but determined communities can do a lot. Quantum jumps must be faced. Avoiding severe water shortages, improving irrigation efficiency and cropping intensity will have to be faster. Bad coal of over a billion tonnes will not to be burnt if alternative energy, life and management styles are implemented and hydel and nuclear plants completed, in addition to a major focus on renewables.
Keeping BOD disposal in reasonable limits from slums will need a strategy of decentralised urbanisation. Technology will have to be integrated with artisan and rural populations so that the benefits of national and global markets can percolate to the work force. Trade and globalisation will have to grapple with these questions.
If these links cannot be established in concrete terms, the concept of an enduring future will remain an empty box. If communities are out of balance with their resource endowments, there can be no question of significant advance in the areas of global concerns such carbon sequestration or biodiversity.
Regarding interlinking of rivers, I planned Sardar Sarovar, which linked the Narmada with the Mahi and Sabarmati and the rivers of Saurashtra. Gujarat has finally tendered the computerised canal systems, we planned.
The pilot Project of Canal Automation, a SCADA-based Remote Monitoring and Control System, has been revived and its scope has been extended to include the entire Narmada Main Canal beside the Vadodara and Skarda branch canals.
But when the Ken Betwa link was to flood for paddy, soils not suitable for it as documented by its own planners, I opposed it in that form. A group I chaired underlined the need to give our people a legal right to drinking water, create a legal structure for water accounting and planning beginning with local aquifers going into river basins and integrate with agro climatic plans.
The Centre has the major role of preparing a water resources information system for this, framework legislation for supporting the states and local bodies in state-of-the-art project and planning techniques. It is not enough to talk of interlinking. We must start local and go up to the river basin in a practical manner.
In energy, it is terrible that the only transmission project completed with FDI was the Karnataka Mangalore Transmission Line by the National Grid of UK sanctioned when I was power minister in 1997.
Fortunately, the power ministry has announced that eight new projects worth Rs 53,000 crore will be put up for auction. Good luck.
Again the many successful distribution cases like the original Kheralu feeder in Gujarat, Karnataka, Bhiwandi, Kanpur and Agra and others using IT technologies should now become the norm rather than remain as examples.
And those who would rubbish generation projects and nuclear power, remember energy security.
(YK Alagh is a former Union minister and eminent economist. The views expressed here are personal.)