Early last week, late into the night, the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change gave its in principle approval for a Rs91,684 crore mega investment plan to generate 20,000MW of solar power by 2020.
The late breaking news, which missed most newspaper deadlines, was spun by the news wires as India’s “national plan to fight global warming”. It is that—if viewed in the context of the fact that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had last year established eight missions that would together form India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change.
Actually, the plan can be much more than a mere response to global warming. Symbolic efforts to fight global warming may hold true for the developed countries, given their historical record of polluting the global environment which has now made them feel strongly the need to demonstrate their mitigation efforts. Not so for India.
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According to the UN, per capita carbon emissions are 20.6 tonnes for the US, 16.2 tonnes for Australia, 9.8 tonnes for the UK, 3.8 tonnes for China and 1.2 tonnes for India.
So, India has nothing to prove to the world.
And if the solar power plan is part of a strategy that has been articulated by developing countries—of getting developed countries to fund the green energy moves of developing countries—it doesn’t work simply because the strategy itself doesn’t make the cut.
After all, a block of countries that are in denial of their role in polluting the world are unlikely to fund a programme that is estimated to cost Rs24,000 crore in subsidies.
India should have positioned the solar plan as a key step towards establishing the country’s energy security with the climate change angle being an ancillary benefit. Not the other way around. Not only would this have created the right perspective, it would also have provided the basis for generating sufficient momentum to productionize the idea. Who, after all, would oppose an idea to secure the country’s energy needs?
At present, India is heavily dependent on fossil fuel imports. This dependency will expand to include coal; unchecked, India will soon be dependent on imports to meet 90% of its annual fuel demand in two decades. To put it bluntly, India can be held hostage by any one big fossil fuel supplier. The only way out, unless India is willing to go to war or get involved in proxy wars that ensure favourable regimes like other countries have done, is to explore an alternative source. And in this, solar energy is the best solution; it is abundantly available especially in tropical India. The challenge is to develop efficient and economical means to tap this potential.
This apart, the government should also right away work towards associating with the cause of solar energy a personality who can demonstrate sufficient zeal and relentless energy to overcome the odds. Alternatively, someone should come forward and adopt the cause. This needs unflinching commitment, because there are innumerable people who will argue that this is a futile and expensive option. But India’s modern history clearly demonstrates that every big idea has been successfully productionized thanks largely to either a bureaucrat who enjoyed wholehearted political backing or, in some cases, a politician himself.
Just to elaborate, here go a few examples:
• It was Homi Bhabha who fathered the nuclear programme in 1944. It was his zealousness and devotion that powered the country’s quest for self reliance in nuclear science and engineering
• Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd owes its existence to Keshav Malaviya, a minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet. He broke with popular perception that India did not have any petroleum reserves, and pushed hard for a domestic effort, resulting in the setting up of what we know today as ONGC
• The Green Revolution came about because of the efforts of C. Subramaniam. It was his vision and influence that guided the political decision-making which eventually led to the shift to the use of high-yielding variety of seeds
• The idea of Maruti, which was conceived more than a decade earlier and backed by then prime minister Indira Gandhi, was executed thanks to the efforts of V. Krishnamurthy in 1984. It required enormous daring to propose and create a starting annual capacity of 100,000 vehicles, twice the number of cars sold annually in India at that time
• It was the tireless effort of Sam Pitroda, who ignored personal ridicule and pioneered the idea of the Centre for Development of Telematics and productionized the dream of connecting every village in India
There are more examples. The one common feature of the people mentioned above was that they were determined. And while a few were mavericks, most of them worked within the system, using their political backing to influence and co-opt the bureaucracy. That energy and drive cannot come from the regular bureaucrats and ministers.
Looking around, in the current political scenario, there is only one automatic choice: Rahul Gandhi. The Gandhi name is sufficient to overcome any resistance within the UPA. The fact that he is the political heir apparent to Congress president Sonia Gandhi will only add to the awe factor. Implicit in the enormity of the challenge will be an enduring legacy—something that he can own—of liberating India from the burden of imported fuels. It is once again a tryst with destiny. But will he take up the challenge? Will the son take up the cause of the sun?
That’s an interesting thought, not just for Rahul Gandhi, but also for all of us on the eve of the 63rd Independence Day.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com