In conversation with Soumya Dutta | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 08, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 08, 2018

In conversation with Soumya Dutta

“Sri Lanka achieved a far higher Human Development Index (HDI) than India, with only about two-thirds the per capita power consumption of India... which path Bangladesh chooses depends on its development priorities.”

Soumya Dutta is an Indian energy expert, green activist and researcher working on climate justice, energy, pollution and ecological justice. He has authored seven books/booklets and over 120 articles in related areas, and trained over 1,000 high school science teachers, activists and other workers. He has been an active proponent of the movement against the Rampal Power Plant. In this interview, he talks to Maha Mirza, a researcher and environmental activist from Bangladesh, about the dangers of subscribing to an unsustainable model of power generation.


Maha Mirza (MM): It is commonly perceived that the production of electricity is directly related to economic growth, development, and poverty alleviation of a country. India has produced a massive amount of electricity based on coal and nuclear energy in the last few decades. To what extent has such large-scale power production improved the standard of living of the poor and disadvantaged population in India?

Soumya Dutta (SD): There is an undeniable connection between electricity/energy supply and “economic development”, but that need also depends a lot on what kind of development pathway a country adopts, and what its development goals/priorities are. If the development priorities are building so-called "world-class infrastructure" in the shape of eight-lane highways, huge amusement parks, shopping malls, etc, then there is a demand for far more electricity—not only to run these, but also to create and run the massive steel, cement, aluminium and petrochemicals complexes needed to create these infrastructures.

If the development priorities are to provide all people with reasonable amounts of power to light up homes, run small- and medium-size enterprises and provide many local jobs, create and deliver good health and education services, etc, the power requirements are far less, for the same development achievements.

In short, every society needs some power, but how much depends on what its priorities and end goals are. This difference can be highlighted clearly by looking at the Sri Lankan example in our neighbourhood. They have achieved a far higher Human Development Index (HDI) than India, with only about two-thirds the per capita power consumption of India. There are other examples around the world. And remember, HDI also includes the standard of living/income as a parameter, along with health and education.

Without issuing judgmental statements, let me present some figures. Bangladesh today has a medium HDI level of 0.570 with a per capita electricity consumption of about 300kWhr/year. India has reached a medium HDI level of 0.609 with a per capita electricity consumption of about 1,000kWhr/year, marginally higher HDI than Bangladesh, with about 250 percent of its per capita electricity consumption!

And with tremendous inequity in India. Sri Lanka has reached a high HDI level, at 0.757, consuming about 600kWhr/year per capita, or just 71 percent of the Indian consumption. Which path it chooses is up to Bangladesh, with the massive environmental and social costs of coal power being well known.

In India, installed electricity capacity has increased nearly five times in the last 25 years, and this has resulted in substantial GDP growth, but when we look at disadvantaged/poor people, the picture is far from rosy. In 1991, India had about 65,000MW installed capacity, while about 54 percent of its people were unconnected. By 2016, at about 310,000MW, we have five times as much as 1991, yet roughly 25 percent of the population (300 million) still do not have electricity. In fact, today in the Indian electricity market, there is a surplus while those unserved and underserved for 70 years in independent India are in darkness and poverty.

All along, the per capita consumption of the rich and middle-class Indians have gone up fast, sucking up most of the additional capacity and generation.


MM: A large portion of India's population is not only underemployed, but also deprived of basic access to electricity. On one hand, there is an immediate need for industrialisation-based employment for people, and on the other, the coal-fired power projects are wiping out the natural livelihood of the farming communities. Do you feel that a mere electricity-driven development model can bring the right sort of development for the impoverished parts of India?

SD: The increasing demand for electricity is a function of the growth of wealth/money accumulation and levels of urbanisation, amongst others. What Indian policymakers failed to recognise is that for a largely rural society till the 1970s and 80s (much like today's Bangladesh), India's economy has grown more based on the growth of the service sector, rather than on electricity-intensive manufacturing, unlike China.

The service sectors do not need as much power to grow as the manufacturing sectors. Simultaneously, the service sector creates many more crucially needed jobs than the medium/heavy manufacturing sector, at a lower level of power input. And the agriculture-based small industry sector can provide very fast growth at much lower power input levels, delivering income to millions, eliminating poverty—the first goal of the SDGs.

This fast increase in power capacity has also dispossessed a very large number of poor in forest areas for mining. This has made millions lose their homes, farmlands, agriculture and natural resource-based livelihoods, which in many cases were able to support a better life than most informal sector jobs in the industrial sector. In India today, over 90 percent of the jobs are in the informal sector—irregular and small payments, little social or job security, absence of labour and other regulatory benefits—while massive infrastructure created has catered to less than 10 percent of the employed with a good or reasonable job.

The rural (agricultural and artisanal) economy in India has taken a severe beating. In 1991, roughly about 25 percent of the GDP came from agriculture, practised by about 70 percent of the people. Today about 14 percent of GDP comes from agriculture with roughly 60 percent still dependent on it. Clearly, the "development path" we chose has resulted in a massive pauperisation of the rural people and small-medium farmers, who are still the majority. Very clearly, this needs to change, fast and in a substantial way, if we are to avoid a social catastrophe.


MM: The government of Bangladesh has consistently claimed that the use of super-critical technology would drastically reduce the pollution from coal-fired power plants. You have been researching specifically on coal-based pollution and its impact for long. Please tell us about the experience of the Indian power plants in using super-critical technology. To what extent can the installation of such “breakthrough” technology reduce the level of environmental pollution?

SD: In spite of such claims, the practical experience from India shows that super critical boiler technology does not substantially reduce the coal consumption of the production process (in comparison with sub critical technology). Real examples like Tata-Mundra, Reliance Sasan, etc, show 3-5 percent improvement in efficiency. Ultra super-critical technology shows a little more improvement, but at substantially higher costs.

But the pollution question is different. If a super-critical plant uses coal with high ash content (as Indian coal is), clearly the particulate emission will be more, unless layers of particulate trappings like cyclone filters, electrostatic precipitators (ESPs), etc, are employed (can also be done for sub-critical). Heavy metals including the neurotoxin mercury will be discharged polluting water sources and the soil, which will ultimately get into human bodies and damage kidneys, brains and so on. This is already visible in heavy coal mining and burning areas. Sulphur in coal is another big polluter, with serious health impacts, and few plants have installed the costly Flue Gas Desulphuriser (FGD).

The impact of these polluters multiplies in areas with many water bodies, agricultural fields, etc. This is particularly true for mercury, which transforms into deadly methyl mercury in such environments. No doubt there are some reasonable pollution-control technologies available today—with or without super-critical, but that adds to the cost substantially both to build and to run. As a result, one sees power plants often switching them off to save power and money, when pollution checking officers are not scheduled to come. One only has to come to Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh to see the "modern super-critical power plant" of Reliance Sasan belching pollutant-laden dark smoke continuously. This has been photographed and reported in local newspapers too, but when the rich can “buy” the governance system, who cares? Corruption also plays a negative role in many other ways.


MM: India has installed around 7,000MW of nuclear power plants. However, India has more than 50 years of technical expertise on nuclear energy—a process which began as early as in 1954. On the contrary, Bangladesh with no prior experience in nuclear energy has taken up a rather ambitious nuclear project, and that is based on mere imported-technology. How realistic is it for Bangladesh to go for such a large-scale installation of nuclear energy?

SD: This question has several aspects.

First, the Indian nuclear establishment has consistently promised grand visions of nuclear power, first promising we will have 20,000MW by the 1980s, then 40,000MW by the year 2000; now it is 63,000MW by 2030/32. The actual performance is just about 7,000MW in 2016.   

The reasons are not hard to follow. It is a very complex technology to master and control (though the physics behind is comparatively simpler), and requires well-developed scientific and industrial capacity. India has mastered that to a certain degree, paying huge economic (and environmental) costs, but it is not yet in full control. In a recent report, the nuclear establishment has slyly admitted to a far modest target of 14-18,000MW by 2030.

Second, the massive unmanageable risk of nuclear plants have been highlighted by the still unfolding Fukushima disaster, five years after it started. With an advanced S&T capacity, and high levels of commitment and management expertise, the Japanese government and industry are still struggling to control Fukushima. The Chernobyl disaster in the then USSR (now Ukraine) in 1986 was so damaging and costly that Gorbachev once remarked that Chernobyl contributed substantially to the break-up of the Soviet Union. A report by the New York Academy of Science in 2009 estimates that the total human lives lost in Chernobyl's radioactive outfall is close to 950,000.

And there are risks not only of accidents. Regular and procedural radioactive releases (called venting), and the massive pileup of high, medium and low level radioactive waste products (technology has no answer on how to neutralise these, except that these should be "safely stored away and completely isolated" for thousands of years) are major concerns. Plutonium 239, created as a byproduct, has a half-life of about 24,000 years, and 10 half-lives are needed for reasonable safety.

Third, the massive Jaitapur nuclear power complex that the Indian government is trying to build, with “imported technology and reactors” from EDF/AREVA of France, was to deliver power at over Rs 9/kWhr. Negotiations are now on to give many hidden subsidies, so that the "shown costs" can be brought down to Rs 6.50 per kWhr. The construction cost of the world's largest nuclear power station (if ever built) is anything between Rs 30-40 crores per MW at conservative estimates.

Today, solar photovoltaic plants in suitable locations in India generate power at about Rs 4.6-5.0/kWhr, costing anywhere between Rs 10-11 crores per MW to build. Wind power costs even less. If Bangladesh tries to build these imported nuclear power plants, it will not only be risky—with Bangladesh having three times India's population density—but it will ruin the country's economy.


MM: You have been involved in the anti-Rampal power plant movement for quite a few years now. We have also observed a number of Indian experts' and environmentalists' open statement against the Rampal coal-fired power plant. As an Indian citizen, what factors did you consider in your proactive opposition against the Rampal plant, which happens to be a joint venture of both the governments of India and Bangladesh?

SD: Yes, I have been wholeheartedly supporting the movement against the Rampal coal power plant, and some of the primary reasons can be found in my answers to the first few questions. There are other strong reasons.

First, with fast increasing climate change impacts, and Bangladesh being one of the most vulnerable countries to these threats (vulnerability is second highest among 196 countries, by some rankings), it is imperative that any existing protection is not damaged. The Sundarbans is a huge guard against two hydro-meteorological disasters—big storms and floods. Rampal power plant will start the process of destruction of the Sundarbans. We will oppose any coal or nuclear power plant near the Indian part of the Sundarbans with equal vigour, for similar reasons.

Second, a big coal power plant will emit millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, adding to climate change, but that is not the primary concern for Bangladesh, which is a very low emitter. Rampal will emit high amounts of acidic oxides, leading to increased acidity of soil in mangrove forests, which are kept slightly acidic by estuarine waters, thus disturbing the pH balance, and increasing the chances of forest dieback. One Rampal plant will not do this, but the host of other associated industrial activities will lead to this. This must be avoided at all costs.

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