Explore all options

Explore all options

Kudankulam and beyond

The turn of events is unfortunate because India has viable alternatives. For example, solar power ticks all the boxes.

The Kudankulam nuclear power plant issue simply refuses to go away. The latest events in the series are a charge by prime minister Manmohan Singh that foreign support is inspiring opposition to the plant. Local leaders of the protest movement have responded with threats to sue the prime minister. The Kudankulam power plant issue provides an opportunity to reflect on the larger issues of the power options for India and the role of the government in making or influencing choices.

Post-independence, India continued with the colonial ruling structures and the top-down governing principle. Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of a bottom-up model with decentralised governance did not receive much attention. These issues are equally relevant in the context of power policy choices and the role of government. Few can dispute the need for increasing the availability of electrical power in India and making life better for the people.

The ongoing power cuts and the seeming inability to find solutions underscore the problems afflicting the power sector. Yet an important question is whether decisions must only be made by faraway bureaucrats and politicians acting in what they perceive to be the public interest? This model of centralised decision-making, introduced in British colonial rule and continued since independence, has not been quite effective, as the results show.

An alternative is to involve local communities in determining what happens in their territory. In reviewing the options available for generation of power, an important factor is the increased level of awareness on environmental issues all over the world, including India, and the rise of movements such as Green Peace.

India since the Vedic times, has had a tradition of reverence for nature and gratefulness for its plenitude. In modern India, several other problems – social and economic – and ineffective leadership have prevented the environmental issue from receiving the attention it deserves. Yet in recent years, there has been an improvement on this front, which is reassuring. The opposition to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant is in keeping with the trend.

Undoubtedly, nuclear power plants carry an element of risk. The Kudankulam project has its origin in an agreement late Rajiv Gandhi signed with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988 – ironically, two years after the accident at the Chernobyl plant in Russia. The Chernobyl disaster provided a wake-up call on the perils in nuclear power.

The tsunami in Japan last year and the damage it inflicted on nuclear plants are fresh reminders of the risks in nuclear power and their environmental consequences.

Business considerations

In the current milieu, it is unclear whether the government will be able to impose its will in the matter of setting up nuclear plants, such as the one at Kudankulam. More information is needed on the business considerations for the government’s enthusiasm. After all, use of nuclear energy in India for civilian purposes was promoted by the United States, which found a warm supporter in Manmohan Singh.

The turn of events is unfortunate because India clearly has viable alternatives. For example, solar power ticks all the boxes – namely, availability, sustainability, renewable character of the resource, zero material cost and minimal environmental impact. With the recent advances in solar technology, it can be an ideal choice. It is possible for individuals and small community groups to generate the power they need, and possibly a little more. This will reduce the need for reliance on electric power provided by the government and avoid the problems associated with it – namely, centralised planning and control, delays, shortages and corruption. A diffused solar power system will not only be hazard-free, it can empower the people – in a literal sense.

Like in several other areas, India needs a nuanced policy for power. In developing one, we must be sensitive to the advantages in a diffused system that facilitates people to generate their own power,  with an option for loading any surplus into the existing public grids on commercial terms. This will improve general availability of power and also provide a source of income for the people generating power.

Given India’s climate metrics, it is possible to develop a bottom-up model of safe and renewable power, based on the sun which, incidentally, is revered as a god in Indian tradition. It would minimise the need for large establishments and huge investment in infrastructure, centralised control and the corruption and red tape they entail.

Government of India already has a ministry for new and renewable energy, which can spearhead the task of developing and implementing the diffused solar power model.

However, we cannot be too sanguine in the matter of power reform. In the 1990s the government attempted to promote wind power generation and provided income tax breaks for investment in the sector. Its impact on the power scene in the country is unclear, but several companies resorted to dubious methods for taking advantage of the tax concessions. In devising a new system, therefore, caution is needed. Given the huge deficits run by the governments at the central and state levels, tax breaks may not be prudent. But if they are to be given, efforts must be made to minimise the scope for abuse.

The diffused power generation model advocated here will reduce dependence on the government and promote the independence of citizens. It is also in keeping with the Gandhian principle of empowerment and decentralisation in the power sector implemented since the 1990s. We must also recognise that the issue is not entirely dependent on government. It is open to the people even now to make use of available technology and tap the solar power that is abundant and readily available.