Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
About a third of our fellow citizens do not have access to electricity. This not due to shortage of generation, though. A study by National Power Training Institute tells that a hilly state like Himachal Pradesh had provided electricity to 95 per cent of households in 2004 itself. Even a ‘backward’ state like Madhya Pradesh had reached electricity to 70 per cent of the households. Performance of the ‘developed’ states pales into insignificance in comparison. Gujarat has provided electricity to only 80 per cent and Kerala to 70 per cent of the households. This indicates that the real lacuna is absence of political will to reach electricity to the poor.
About four crore households do not have electricity today. Provision of electricity at lifeline consumption of 30 units per month would require 1.2 billion units per month. Generation in the country is about 67 billion units per month presently. Therefore, diversion of mere 2 per cent of present generation is sufficient to provide electricity to all households.
Real problem is that the available electricity is captured by the upper classes for their luxury use. Not enough remains for the poor. The electricity bill of a prominent Mumbai industrialist is Rs 70 lacs per month. The stronger boy in the family will eat away the food of the weak child if the mother does not intervene. Similarly, the upper classes are consuming the electricity and depriving the poor because the Government is failing to intervene in favour of the latter.
It is doubtful whether the consumption by the rich is adding to human welfare. The poor use electricity mostly for light and fan and sometimes for running desert cooler, fridge and TV. This leads to a distinct improvement in their welfare. But consumption of electricity by the rich for running air-conditioners, washing machines, dish washers, geysers, freezers and reflected lighting may not add much to welfare of the people of the country. Experts at University of Cape Town have studied the relationship between the Human Development Index (HDI) and consumption of electricity using data for about 100 countries. HDI is based on income, literacy and health status of the people and is the most acceptable measure of welfare of the people. Experts found that the HDI increases hugely from 0.2 to 0.75 as per capita electricity consumption increases from 0 to 1000 units per year. However, increase in HDI is small as consumption increases thereafter. Increase of electricity consumption from 1000 to 9000 units per capita leads to a small increase in HDI from 0.75 to 0.82. Consumption of the first 1000 units leads to an increase in HDI of 0.55. But further increase of consumption to 9000 units leads to a paltry increase of 0.07. This indicates that this huge consumption of electricity is not adding much to the welfare of the people. Conversely, a reduction in consumption by the rich will lead to small decline in HDI while supply of the same electricity to the poor will lead to a huge increase in HDI. Welfare of the people, therefore, will be attained by diverting the present consumption from the rich to the poor. Reduction of food intake by the obese and giving that to the sickly poor leads to enhancement of welfare of both. Similarly, diversion of electricity from the rich to poor will lead to welfare of both. The rich will take a walk in fresh morning air instead of breathing stale air from the air-conditioner.
Increased generation of electricity is not necessary for securing economic growth either, it seems. According to data released by the Central Electricity Authority, demand for electricity is increasing more for domestic consumption. The rate of growth of domestic consumption is 7.4 per cent per year against only 2.7 per cent for productive sectors. We are generating electricity more for the luxury of the rich and less for economic growth.
The share of services sector is increasing rapidly in our economy. This sector includes software, call centers, clinical research, education, health, movies, etc. Share of this sector in our economy was 30 per cent in 1951. It has become about 60 per cent today. Its share is about 90 per cent in developed countries like the United States. The requirement of electricity in this sector is less. An army of engineers can produce software worth a crore of rupees with small consumption of electricity. Nearly ten times more electricity is required to produce a crore rupees worth of cement or steel. The requirement of electricity for economic growth is less because growth is coming from the services sector.
Example of the developed countries is often citied in favour of the need for rapid increase in generation. Indeed, the consumption of electricity and incomes are both high in these countries. But the conclusion that increase in generation is the source of their economic progress is not correct. The falsity in the logica can be explained by an example. We would find that the age and consumption of cloth of the people increase together. It can thus be concluded that wearing more cloth leads to an increase in age! The truth obviously is that increase in age leads to higher consumption of cloth. Similarly, the developed countries consume more electricity because they are developed. They are not developed because they consume more electricity.
The ability of mother earth to produce electricity is ultimately limited. Forests are cut and Green House Gasses emitted in the generation of thermal power. Thermal plants routinely discharge hot water in rivers and kill fishes to save money in making of cooling towers. Nuclear power carries the risk of radioactive leakages as seen in Japan. We are also pawning our economic sovereignty by becoming dependent on imported uranium. Hydro power is probably the worst of the conventional sources of electricity. Water of our rivers ferments in the reservoirs. Ashes of the dead are immersed in the sullied waters. Pray! Will that beget them salvation? Hydro projects trap sediments and are leading to rapid erosion of our coasts. They obstruct the migratory routes of fishes and lead to their extinction. Huge amount of methane gas is generated from the reservoirs. This gas is more poisonous than Carbon dioxide and adds hugely to global warming that is imperiling the very existence of our civilization.
Our Government is determined to secure a huge increase in generation of electricity under the false premise that environmental and spiritual costs of generation are less and benefits are large. We should rise above this misinformation. We should make policy for just distribution of available electricity. We should focus on increase in economic growth from services sector which does not require much electricity. We should not destroy our social cohesion and environment for luxury of the rich as being pushed by the Prime Minister and Minister of Power.