Radhakrishna Rao: Rural communities which depend on fuelwood have often been blamed for causing deforestation. But a recent survey points out that in India there has been a perceptible shift from fuelwood to other biofuels over the last 20 years. What has bought about this change in energy use?
Professor Amulya Reddy
Professor Amulya Reddy: In the 1970s energy researchers propagated the view that poor rural communities indulge in massive deforestation to meet their energy needs. But a study carried out by the Centre for the Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas (ASTRA) of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, conclusively proved that this view is false. Rural people meet their energy needs through the diligent collection of fallen twigs and branches. Without felling standing trees, they have been meeting their energy needs in a sustainable manner.
On the other hand, the rural poor have become the victims of deforestation caused mostly by commercial vested interests and urban fuelwood demands. It is because of this that the forests are thinning and receding at an alarming rate. As a result, rural folk have to walk longer and longer distances to collect fuelwood.
Meanwhile, fuelwood sourced from forests is marketed in the cities and towns of India in a big way. For example a study conducted by ASTRA in early 1980s revealed that as much as 20 per cent of the population in Bangalore, a booming city of 5 million plus people, is dependent on fuelwood for meeting its cooking energy requirements. What is surprising is that the fuelwood is brought into the city from distances of up to 600 kms. This not only causes massive deforestation, it also leads to the consumption of large amounts of diesel fuel used in lorries and trucks.
RR: Do you think that increasing use of solar cookers can ease pressure on energy sources whose unsustainable use is being blamed for ecological ills?
AR: Solar cookers and improved wood stoves have made only a marginal difference thus far in India. In the first place these devices are costly and unaffordable to a large segment of the rural community in India. Rural communities are accustomed to meeting their energy needs without monetary expenditure. Secondly, the technologies are still in the process of evolution.
More importantly, these non-conventional energy devices are not always suited to local needs. For instance, jowar roti (an Indian leafy bread made out of maize flour) accounts for a lion's share of cooked food in some parts of rural India, but it cannot be cooked using a solar cooker.
RR: The institutions to support energy programmes are often quite indifferent to the social diversity and economic disparity common in India. What is the best way to overcome these shortcomings?
AR: Any energy programme should clearly focus on making energy accessible - economically and efficiently - to all households in a region or country. The kind of energy source should be left to the discretion of the community.
For instance, a rural area with sufficient cattle and institutions capable of supporting a community-oriented energy programme could easily go in for community biogas. Similarly, villages rich in agricultural residues and wastes could use biomass gasifiers. Other areas lacking in these resources could perhaps opt for liquid petroleum gas (LPG) as has happened in many parts of Latin America.
Energy users should be at the centre stage of the entire energy planning strategy. Consumers should actively participate in the formulation of energy policies and in their implementation.
RR: Both in India and China, for different reasons, the national biogas programmes have lost much of their steam. What future do you see for such programmes?
AR: You are quite right to highlight the differences in these two countries. Right from the start the Indian biogas programme emphasised family-size plants, which were costly. Community-based plants never received the attention they deserved. Because the family-based individual biogas plants were not cost effective without heavy subsidies, the Indian biogas programme lost much of its steam.
In distinct contrast, the Chinese biogas programme was basically designed to meet the fertiliser needs of the agricultural sector. However with chemical fertilisers becoming cheap enough to be afforded by rural farmers, the biogas programme in China lost much of its relevance.
Perhaps other countries keen on popularising biogas could learn from the Chinese and Indian experiences. With a proper institutional framework and efficient management, countries could harness biogas to meet their rural energy needs.
RR: India is a land of contrasts. Age-old bullock carts harmoniously coexist with nuclear power plants. What is the relevance of such a scenario to the ending of energy crisis in the country?
Making dung cakes for fuel, West Bengal
© Nancy Durrell McKenna/Panos Pictures
AR: We have got to make use of both modern and improved traditional devices in an ecologically sustainable manner. Even age-old devices can be modernised and made cost effective. The eco-friendly and economically viable bullock cart can serve the rural communities remarkably well. It is now being used to carry fertiliser and seeds from homes to farms and to bring back crops and fodder over unprepared cross-country terrains. Farmers also use bullock carts to carry their farm products to market. Such carts can play a role in meeting transportation needs.
Similarly, if nuclear power plants could meet economic criteria, stringent safety standards, reliable waste disposal requirements and security of fissile material from terrorists and military establishments, while winning social acceptance, they can contribute to the central power grid.
Developing countries have a historic opportunity to promote measures that would ultimately allow them to bypass the increasingly unsustainable patterns of the industrial countries.
RR: Do you think that advances in developing photovoltaic devices for the satellite missions could be harnessed to boost the solar energy programme?
AR: In fact, the drive to develop solar cells came first from the energy needs of satellites. Technological advances are now leading to a progressive decline in the cost of solar-powered devices. No wonder that solar power is a growing energy source in the world.
RR: What role do you foresee for the small hydel schemes?
AR: Connecting rural areas to a central power grid is an expensive proposition on account of the low demands and high transmission losses. In this context, India should definitely exploit the technology of small hydel projects to meet part of its rural energy needs, particularly because the country is rich in streams and small rivers.
A network of mini hydel power plants can deliver energy equivalent to a big hydel project without imposing a strain on ecological systems.
The Indian state of Kerala is planning to build small hydel power plants with the help of Chinese expertise. Countries which are particularly rich in hydel resources can implement such projects without inundation of forest resources or human displacement.
RR: Nearly three-quarters of India's population which lives in rural areas receives less than a quarter of the total commercial energy consumed in the country. What makes for such a glaring disparity?
AR: The reason is quite simple. It is easier and more economical to cater to urban consumers for whom the demand is higher and transmission losses are lower.
Because a majority of Indian villages do not have industrial units and other utilities consuming commercial power on a large scale, the disparity is partly in the nature of things. Of course, in the "green revolution states" of Punjab and Haryana, agro-industries and mechanised agriculture consume a large amount of power. But in the rest of the country rural demands are lower.
RR: Do you agree that biomass energy potentials in India remain significantly under used?
AR: Because agriculture constitutes the backbone of the Indian economy, an enormous volume of agricultural residues is generated in the rural areas of India. There are also significant amounts of livestock wastes. Finally, many parts of the country are rich in woody biomass. Thus, the biomass energy potential is huge. But, the utilisation is poor because of constraints.
The constraints on biomass energy use could perhaps be overcome by launching pilot projects and making use of the experience to replicate projects. Human resources, effective management and appropriate technological options need to be harnessed while launching biomass-based energy projects. Above all, local conditions needs to be studied in depth at the outset.
RR: Looking ahead, what future do you envisage for meeting the world's energy needs?
AR: The world is meeting its energy needs. The big catch is whether the world's energy needs can be met in an environmentally sustainable fashion.
Energy can become an instrument for sustainable development. The point is that while the future may be difficult, continuation of the present trends cannot be sustained.
Unfortunately, the environmental advantages of newer and cleaner options are not rewarded in the market place. By correcting this distortion, we can move towards a "a brighter and sustainable energy future".
But the rider is that the energy consumption of every section of the society should be met in an environmentally sustainable manner. Within an appropriate framework, public and private sector energy companies, governments and civil society can all contribute synergistically to meet the goals of sustainable development in the years ahead.
Radhakrishna Rao is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.
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