Energy management needs top priority

It does not matter whether the assumptions made by the Tata Energy Research Institute are accurate or whether they will hold true. What matters is that TERI"s predictions of the country"s energy situation are grim -- and require urgent attention.

If energy use in India is not rationalised and made more efficient, the country"s balance of payments will go totally haywire, industrial and agricultural growth can come to a standstill and environmental destruction will make life in both energy-producing and energy consuming regions absolutely hellish.

Per capita commercial energy consumption has grown from about 110 kg oil equivalent (kgoe) in l973-74 to about 220 kgoe in l990-9l. Simultaneously, the economy has become increasingly dependent on oil, a large proportion of which is imported. Every Rs 100 of the GDP needed 1.97 kgoe in l970-7l. By l990-9l, this figure has risen to 2.77 kgoe, despite the government"s continuing emphasis on the need for policies that would reduce oil dependence.

The country"s energy situation clearly demands quick action, but at the same time, with great care. Given the rapid rate at which energy demand is rising, energy production programmes should be implemented as rapidly as possible. But they must also be managed in a way that environmental costs are minimised as much as possible. And, all consumers must recognise the full value of the energy units they use.

Take the case of the ecological costs of energy use, which, indeed, are very heavy. Coal reserves exist largely in forest areas in the eastern region, which are inhabited by tribal people. Extraction of coal causes heavy deforestation and this in turn leads to soil erosion, clogging of river beds and tribal displacement. Coal transportation requires fossil fuels and this increases pollution problems. And, wherever this coal is burnt, noxious emissions cause local environmental problems, carbon dioxide emissions threaten global warming and sulphur dioxide emissions threaten acid rain precipitation. However, few users are aware of the heavy social and ecological costs of using coal. And, of course, none is asked to pay these costs, which is itself a part of the problem.

Instead, areas like the Damodar Valley have to pay these costs and as a result, they steadily sink into an economic stupor. These areas provide the valuable resources needed to power the country"s industrial development, but they themselves get little in return. The government"s effort is entirely to keep energy prices as low as possible, even adopting policies such as freight equalisation which simply means coal prices are the same everywhere. But abandoning such policies is complicated for on one hand, they encourage profligate and inefficient use of energy, but, on the other, they supposedly promote a more balanced regional development. Nevertheless, whatever the pros and cons, instituting energy efficiency has to be given top priority.

Simultaneously, every effort should be made to promote renewable energy sources so that the demand of fossil fuels is reduced and use of biomass resources like firewood minimised. Use of renewable energy sources has considerable potential. As much as 14 per cent of the total cooking energy requirements can be met by solar cookers, but marketing surveys show that while cookers do excite consumer interest, they need to be hardier and lighter, for instance, to become more popular. More importantly, urban kitchens will have to be designed to make space available so that solar cookers need not be moved around to face the sun. All this requires coordination amongst disparate agencies -- something for which governments do not show much acumen unless political interests are involved.

Transport, for example, is a field that requires not just only hard-headed technological planning but also social engineering. Both public transport and bicycles in India suffer from a class stigma: they are used mainly by the poorer classes. But there is no reason to believe Indian public transport systems cannot be as convenient as private transport systems and sufficiently efficient and comfortable to attract even the filthy rich, including ministers, into using them. But this calls for foresight -- and we lack it. If the public transport system is to be improved, then the best of technology should be made available to this sector so that it becomes fuel-efficient and emissions-free. Private cars, on the other hand, should be relegated to make do with outdated technology. But, instead, we do the reverse. We allow our public services to trudge along using backward technology, while private vehicles are granted the benefit of every technology to make them convenient. What India should do is adopt the slogan: the best buses in the world, but the worst motor cars.

A careful look should be given also to urban planning concepts that are in use to determine whether they promote unnecessary energy use. For example, instead of separate zones for work and residence, planning should promote multiple-use areas as this would reduce travel time and distance, use less energy and cut production. There should be controls to prevent noisy and polluting industries coming up in residential areas. We have no dearth of pollution control and public nuisance regulations, but we lack the will to enforce them. We should encourage urban democracy so that the community itself undertakes to enforce those laws that keep its environment clean and peaceful.

Which, of course, brings up another key issue: the absence of a coherent national energy and environment policy. None other than the Prime Minister should initiate action to formulate such a policy because its character is inter-ministerial. It is critical that we set our fuel prices so that it provides an incentive to conserve fuel or even switch over to renewable energy, by requiring consumers to pay the ecological costs of the energy they use. We need to switch over to a mix of energy sources to minimise environmental and social damage; and, when such damage is inevitable, there must be sufficient funds for investment in social and ecological improvements. At the same time, the national policy should ensure sufficient investments in rural energy resources so that rural energy problems are not neglected.