Sacrificing The Environment For A Stronger Economy

Sacrificing The Environment For A Stronger Economy

According to the recent McKinsey Report, India’s energy demand, which was nearly 700 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe) in 2010, is expected to cross 1500 mtoe by 2030. This will lead to a higher dependence on imports, which will increase from the present 30 per cent to over 50 per cent. India is set to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by 2030. Narendra Modi is pursuing the agenda of the previous government, albeit more aggressively. PM Modi’s priority is to provide all Indians access to electricity by 2022. India is the tenth largest economy in the world after the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Italy and Russia. According to official studies, if India achieves an average annual GDP growth rate of 7.4 per cent, it would be the third largest economy in the world, after China and the US, by 2047.

Economic growth and energy consumption are intertwined in India, hence the central importance of security of supply—that is, the availability, reliability and affordability of energy resources. The government aims to achieve self-sufficiency to reduce its exposure to supply disruptions elsewhere. Experts, however, expect India to become increasingly dependent on energy imports. Although domestic production will increase, it will be outpaced by growing demand.

According to the latest data released by the Government of India, the total power generation in India till April 2015 stood at 272687.17 MW, out of which 165235.88 MW came from coal-based thermal power plants. India’s largest energy source is coal, followed by oil and natural gas which, together, meet almost 92 per cent of the country’s total energy needs. The rest comes from hydropower, traditional biomass and waste. Coal is also the main fuel for electricity production, accounting for more than 71 per cent. In 2013, India saw its second largest volumetric increase in coal consumption on record. With an 8.5 per cent share of the world’s total consumption, it is the third largest consumer of coal after China (50 per cent) and the US (12 per cent). India has the fifth largest coal reserves in the world (6.8 per cent), after the US, China, Russia and Australia, and is also the world’s fifth largest producer (almost 6 per cent), after China (48 per cent), US (13 per cent), Australia (7 per cent) and Indonesia (7 per cent).

On the flip side, India has displaced Norway to become the fifth largest global hydropower producer after China, Canada, Brazil, US and Russia. However this is heavily dependent on the monsoons, a drought or weak monsoon season leads to a fall in hydropower generation with the coal power plants balancing the system. In spite of all the efforts to diversify its renewable energy sources, mainly wind and solar power, experts expect the country’s energy mix to evolve very slowly over the next 20 years, with fossil fuels accounting for 87 per cent of demand in 2035.

The dominance of coal for its energy needs has resulted in India being the third largest carbon emitter in the world, after China and US. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), these emissions are set to more than double by 2040. As the fourth largest primary energy consumer after China, US and Russia, India’s per capita energy consumption is only one-third of the global average while its electric power consumption per capita is 684 kWh per day, compared with China (3,298 kWh) and the United States (13,246 kWh). It is hence inevitable that to pursue its economic growth targets, it is expected to have the highest growth in energy demand by 2035. This is bad news for the control of carbon emissions in the country. India cannot agree to put limits on its carbon emissions, as it will be at the expense of its economic growth. The government is taking steps to tackle the upcoming energy needs in a more sustainable way.

Environmental watchdog bodies like Greenpeace, Urban Emissions, Indian Institute of Technology and Centre for Science have issued reports which have made headlines in India. The burning of coal for electricity pumps out large quantities of carbon dioxide, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and various heavy metals as air pollution. A recent scientific publication in the PNAS Journal shows how the per-hectare yield of rice and wheat have decreased over the last decade owing to the increasing concentration of aerosols produced as secondary pollution from thermal power plants. There is ample published data about the long term health effects in Medical Journals. Reports about the effect of thermal plant pollution on livestock, fishery and flora and fauna have been doing the rounds for years.


Large scale coal mining and thermal plants have devastated landscapes by polluting air and water and impoverish communities living near mines and power plants. In India, nearly 400 million have no electricity; power is mostly exported to large cities and heavy industry while local people are left with pollution and toxic dumps. The World Health Organisation has estimated air pollution to have caused 7 million premature deaths in 2012—more than twice the death toll from tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS combined.

The average efficiency of the Indian thermal plants is just 32.8 per cent , one of the lowest among the power producing countries. The average carbon dioxide emissions of these plants are 14 per cent higher than the average in China. Carbon dioxide is the principal greenhouse gas that is causing climate change, which in turn is reducing farm output worldwide, raising sea levels and making droughts, storms and floods more frequent and more severe.

The problem is serious, and pressure from civil society as well as attention from research institutes. Till late, we had no specific emission standards for thermal power plants, except in respect of particulate matters. On the May 15, 2015, the Government of India came out with the first ever draft notification on emission standards for coal based thermal power plants.

The draft notification has been put up for comments on the environment ministry’s website. The notification is replete with errors, inconsistencies and baseless conditionalities. While the draft notification is open to public suggestion, it is silent on many important standards of emission and the criteria of measurements. While prudent standards have been mooted for new plants, the emission standards laid down for existing thermal power plants are much more relaxed—allowing for up to six times higher counts in cases of SOx (Sulphur Oxides) and NOx (Nitrogen Oxides). Furthermore, thermal plants withdraw around 22 billion cubic metres of water every year—more than half of India’s domestic water needs.

The draft has made an illogical categorisation of plants that were built between 2003 and 2006, and those set up before 2003, and impose laxer standards for the latter. Nearly 60,000MW of coal power plant capacity was installed before 2003. Close to 90,000 megawatts or 55 per cent of existing installed coal power plant capacity was set up between 2007 and 2015. These plants are outside the purview of the notification as the draft has no regulatory limits for any pollution parameters for such plants set up between January 2007 and December 2016. These plants still have between 40 and 50 years of their design life to live out.

The standards laid down for mercury is just an eyewash. Mercury is a deadly toxic heavy metal present in coal in minor amounts. It vaporises and escapes as an air pollutant, quickly returning to earth with rain and contaminates water bodies, where it is transformed into methyl mercury, a lethal form which is persistent, and readily taken in the food chain. A government document indicates that Indian coal ash has an average mercury concentration of 0.53 mg/kg. Recent studies have shown how mercury from coal power plants has entered into the bloodstream of local people in India. The proposed emission standard of 0.03 mg/Nm3 is far more than what the present operating thermal power plants are emitting. In fact, the emissions calculated in some thermal power plants by the Central Institute of Mining & Fuel Research (a government funded institute) in 2014 ranged between 0.00424 mg/Nm3to 0.0148 mg/Nm3. The proposed standard (of 30ug/Nm3 ; 1 ug = 1/1000 mg) allows new coal-fired power plants to emit nearly 75 times as much mercury of the USA standard.

The Narendra Modi-led NDA government has been criticised for diluting environmental laws to accelerate industrialisation. The government’s thrust on quick clearances to projects and minimum hurdles for developmental projects made it imperative that the strictest standards be notified without any further delay.

While the notification has been welcomed as the first step for cleaning up the coal sector, the damage that has already been done needs serious looking into. Existing power plants need to be subjected to the most stringent of standards; and the already polluted sites should not be burdened further. The poor enforcement infrastructure of the Pollution Control Boards should be spruced up to ensure that standards are followed. The government should explore options other than coal. Until then, this draft notification will remain an inadequate document.

Odisha: The Next Minamata


Odisha is all set to become the powerhouse of the country. Over the past decade, the state has signed several memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with public and private firms to produce 50,000 MW thermal power. The last two decades have also seen Odisha teetering from one extreme weather condition to another, from heat waves to cyclones, from droughts to floods. Since the 1960’s, these calamities have become more frequent and are striking areas that have never experienced such conditions before. The 1999 super cyclone affected places like Bhubaneswar and Nayagarh, which were never traditionally cyclone-prone. Odisha is placed at the head of the Bay of Bengal, where most of the peninsular weather is formed. Even a slight change in the sea’s behaviour can have a domino effect on the coast. The Bay of Bengal often becomes the centre of low pressure, bringing heavy rain and cyclones to the entire sub-continent, especially in coastal Odisha.

The State has experienced around 952 small and big cyclones and 451 tornadoes between 1891 and 1970. During the 1970s and 1980s only two severe cyclones hit the state. During the 1980s and 2014, five severe cyclones hit the state and the number of cyclonic conditions rose. Between 1834 and 1926, floods occurred at an average interval of 3.84 years. Between 1961 and 2014, floods have become an annual affair. During the 1950s only three districts were drought-prone. By the 1980s, the whole of western Odisha became drought-prone. During the 1990s, 25 of the 30 districts became drought-prone.

The coal belts of Angul-Talcher-Dhenkanal, Jharsuguda Sundargarh and Kalinganagar regions have witnessed a huge change in the climate with maximum day temperature shooting past 50 degrees Celsius during peak summer. The MOEF has issued a Critically Polluted List prominent among which are Angul and Jharsuguda in Odisha, Bharuch in Gujarat, Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, Chandrapur in Maharashtra, Korba in Chhattisgarh, and Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. The geographical concentration of these plants will further aggravate this situation as they are in a swathe of Central India.                                                                                                      (AD)


By Anil Dhir

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