|Vidarbha: Dirty technology in the guise of development?|
The government of Maharashtra plans to allow 43 new private and public thermal power plants in Vidarbha, a region that’s suffered years of neglect and is home to thousands of distressed, suicidal farmers. Is the government justified in sacrificing Vidarbha to the power needs of the rest of the state/country?
When the regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada were integrated into the erstwhile state of Bombay, Article 371 (2) was inserted into the Indian Constitution by the 7th Amendment of 1956. This was to ensure that the people of the two regions were properly integrated. For this to happen, the governor of the state was given special responsibilities through a presidential order for the establishment of development boards, allocation of funds for development, etc. In 1994, statutory development boards were constituted for the regions of Vidarbha, Marathwada and the rest of Maharashtra.
Over the past 15 years, the Vidarbha Statutory Development Board (VSDB) has endeavoured to accelerate development in the region. It has highlighted poor irrigation facilities, shortage of electric irrigation pumps and disparities in electric supply, while using its meagre resources to build infrastructure. But not much has changed. A 2006 Planning Commission fact-finding mission investigating rural distress in Vidarbha reported “astounding evidence of years of continued neglect of a region and its people”.
It comes as no surprise therefore that the VDSB’s ‘Report on Need of Region-wise Equitable Distribution of Electricity’ did not make news in Vidarbha as it said nothing new. But, while focusing on disparities in electricity distribution, it does reveal government plans to permit 43 new private and public thermal power plants in Vidarbha.
The rationale behind coal-fired thermal power plants
The region of Vidarbha, comprising Nagpur and Amravati divisions, constitutes 31.6% of Maharashtra, or approximately 97,321 sq km. Eleven districts fall under it -- Amravati, Akola, Bhandara, Buldana, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Gondia, Nagpur, Wardha, Washim and Yavatmal. The 2001 census puts Vidarbha’s population at 20,630,987.
The government’s attempt to develop Vidarbha into a power hub has some sound reasoning behind it. Being centrally located, power can easily be distributed across the country from here. And the absence of large industry and cities implies minimal demand for land, water, clean air, etc. It is assumed, of course, that the farmers here, being in a state of constant distress, would be only too eager to dispose of their land.
Growing energy requirements add to the ‘suitable conditions’. The Central Electricity Authority’s National Electricity Plan has assessed the capacity addition for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan to be 78,530 MW, of which 58,597 MW will be through coal-fired thermal generation. A capacity addition of 82,000 MW is forecast for the Twelfth Plan, to be partially met by 40,000 MW thermal generation. In 2009, the power secretary stated that “the future of the power sector will be largely dependent on coal supplies, at least for the next 15-20 years”. It’s obvious that the state government is eyeing revenue-generating opportunities in its plan to set up thermal power plants in Vidarbha.
Capitalising on the vacuum created by underdevelopment, the government is promoting dirty technology in the guise of development, reminiscent of international business using lax labour and environmental laws to push dirty technology in third world countries.
Vidarbha: Underdeveloped but powering Maharashtra
The Maharashtra government’s 2008-09 Economic Survey highlights approval for 133 Special Economic Zones (SEZ). Vidarbha got just nine, with an investment of Rs 12,432 crore and employment potential for 5.76 lakh people. Only seven of the 20 registered cooperative industrial estates in Vidarbha are operational. The tables below point to the lack of industrial development in the region.
Maharashtra State Power Generation Company plants generated 6,281 MW of power at 10.11 am on March 22, 2010: 3,720 MW were from coal-fired thermal power plants in Vidarbha. Vidarbha consumes only 25% of this power, according to a deposition by Vidarbha Industries Association in the matter of Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Ltd’s (MSEDCL’s) Petition for Determination of Additional Supply Charge for Withdrawal of Load Shedding in the Headquarters of Revenue Divisions in MSEDCL Licence Area.
Considering Vidarbha’s underdevelopment and its current role in generating electricity, it’s not surprising that the region has been chosen as the power hub of the state, if not the country.
Impact of coal-fired thermal power
Large projects cause displacement. The Chandrapur Super Thermal Power Plant (CSTPP) website states that 49 villages were relocated and 12,212 hectares of land acquired for the project.
Other associated problems include flyash-generation and its impact on climate. India generates 120 million tonnes of flyash annually, and over 65,000 acres of land are used as ash ponds, says a 2004 Confederation of Indian Industries report on flyash. To deal with this problem, a Government of India notification dated November 6, 2008 orders all coal/lignite power plants to achieve 50% flyash utilisation within a year of the notification. But this does not seem realistic considering the 2005-06 government statistics indicating only 25% utilisation for cement, bricks, etc.
The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) says: “Due to enormous quantity of ash content in Indian coal, approximately 1 acre per MW of installed thermal capacity is required for ash disposal.” Vidarbha could soon be drowning in flyash!
Another problem is carbon emissions. India generated 1,252 gm/kwh of carbon dioxide using coal/peat in 2007, according to the International Energy Association’s ‘CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion 2009’. Not to mention mercury, SOX and NOX emissions that ride pillion with carbon dioxide emissions, or the resulting health impacts that include silicosis, asthma, lung fibrosis, bronchitis, cancers, etc.
The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) report ‘Post Clearance Environmental Impacts and Cost Benefit Analysis of Power Generation in India’ monetises these impacts. Studying two coal-fired thermal power plants, a gas-based power plant and a hydroelectric plant, the report calculates the total external cost of a coal-based power project as Rs 0.1067 per kwh. Thus, for CSTPP in Vidarbha, the daily external cost is Rs 5,992,272, at full capacity.
Vidarbha Environmental Action Group (VEAG)
The paradox of building power plants in a power-surplus region and its adverse impacts did not immediately strike people in Vidarbha.
Then, on February 20, 2010, a diverse group of concerned ‘Vidarbhaites’ met in Nagpur under the Vidarbha Environmental Action Group banner. Retired engineers from MSEB, members of the construction industry, industrialists in the power sector and NGOs spoke up against the plan. There was consensus about the need for power for development, but official sanction to sacrifice a region’s environment and its people’s health for the betterment of the rest of the state/country was unacceptable.
Besides pollution and resource use factors, attendees of the meeting expressed the fear that other industries would be crowded out by these plants. Their apprehensions were based on the possibility of carbon emission limits being drawn up for different regions in the future. Vidarbha’s thermal power plants would gobble up these limits, at the expense of other industries’ expansion plans. It was pointed out that the polluting power generators were not being built on the west coast because of strong local opposition. Vidarbha, many speakers agreed, was a soft target.
They suggested that the plants be constructed either at the pit-head or at the place of consumption. Plants at pit-heads save power consumed in freight, which is 440 joules/kgkm, while power plants at consumption nodes reduce transmission and distribution losses estimated to be 30%-40%, according to an ASSOCHAM report.
Pointing to the current development paradigm that exhorts sacrifices, as is being demanded of Vidarbha, a speaker at the meet argued for the need to question this model; unfortunately, not many agreed with him. It was also suggested that small power plants be built as an alternative as they are less resource-intensive and more environment-friendly. Strangely, there was hardly any discussion on renewable energy sources and the role of energy efficiency.
The VEAG plans to file a PIL against the government’s plans.
(Samir Nazareth is an independent writer and researcher)