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Both Ends

Both Ends

“Never burn your candle at both ends.” I doubt that I will ever forget that line of advice, proffered consistently by my father, Lal Chand Sahgal, through the decades. Were he alive today (he left us on August 22, 2008 after an incredibly full 97 years), he would have agreed that this image of a Periyar Tiger Reserve forest fire, raging around a high tension power cable, perfectly exemplifies the fatal ‘both ends’ developmental blunder being perpetrated on us by our government.


Deforestation – one end of the candle:

1. The incidence of forest fires across the globe has increased manifold in the past decade. 

Scientists suggest that in addition to all the ‘usual’ reasons, climate change has dramatically enhanced the frequency and intensity of forest fires, due to a rise in the temperature of the forest floor and the extended length of the dry season. 

2. India has lost more than 90 per cent of its dense crowned cover forests and this has put billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The accelerated pace of deforestation has been written off by developers as a natural corollary of development. Even today, states such as Chattisgarh seek permission to cut millions of trees from natural forests to make way for ‘development’.

3. The net result of these two realities – global warming and deforestation – is that large parcels of forests in India that once sequestered and stored carbon are now sources of carbon emissions. 

The National Action Plan on Climate Change does not adequately deal with the imperative of nurturing ecosystems back to health. Instead, it suggests ‘tree planting’, which will exacerbate the problem through monoculture plantations.

Carbon emissions – the other end of the candle:

1. The vast bulk of India’s power generation relies on coal-fired thermal plants, which are a primary source of greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming is going to devastate Indian farmers, fisherfolk and the urban and rural poor. Yet our government plans to sharply increase investments in coal.

More units of electricity would be produced per rupee invested if it were applied to enhancing the Plant Load Factors (PLFs) operated by State Electricity Boards (whose PLF hovers around 70 per cent compared to over 90 per cent for privately-run plants). Investment in raising transmission efficiency would also yield more electricity without increasing carbon emissions.

2. Massive nuclear power investments are also envisaged, despite the fact that India has neither enough uranium to run the plants, nor a strategy to safely store irradiated waste. What is more, the investments will start yielding returns only after two decades, and that too for just two or three decades at best. Additionally, new nuclear plants will emit huge quantities of carbon during mining, plant construction and storage of waste.

Alternate energy generation is already twice that of nuclear power, but this step-child of the Indian government, which could actually save millions of lives, is being starved of funds, while good money is being thrown after bad into the ‘conventional’ energy basket.

3. After having built almost 3,000 large dams, our government is unable to point to even one that has actually performed to its promised capacity. All large dams are dying early at the hands of siltation. Yet our government plans to build another 162 major hydel projects, mostly in the Himalaya, knowing fully well that these will destroy pristine forests and that Himalayan glacial melt will probably result in river flows that will be unable to turn the turbines by the time the last dam is built.

Another step-child of the hydropower sector is catchment area protection. The catchment area is the land on which rain falls, from where it flows into the dam reservoir. Investments in restoring catchments would a) sequester carbon through regenerated forests and b) prevent siltation into reservoirs. India needs a moratorium on new hydel power projects (planned expenditure Rs. 3,00,000 crores). Just one-third of this amount could help make hundreds of existing dams yield the power we need to meet our future needs, without damaging forests, displacing people, or borrowing billions of dollars.

So there we have it. The forests that could help us mitigate and avoid the worst impacts of climate change are being hacked down. The power options that could prevent carbon from going up into the atmosphere are being starved of funds. Huge investments are being made into coal, hydel and nuclear options, which will all aggravate climate change.

My father would have disapproved.

Bittu Sahgal

October 2008


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