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It is fashionable for all world leaders to boast of their commitment to preserving the environment. They flaunt statistics at global warming and climate change summits, speak about discriminatory regulations which favor the advanced nations at the expense of poorer countries, pledge themselves to carbon credit regimes and words and phrases like “clean energy”, “alternative fuels”, “hydrocarbon emissions”, “greenhouse effects”, “user-friendly energy policies” et cetera fly fast and furious.

This has gone on for decades. But the polar icecaps continue, it seems, to recede even as winters get harsher in the northern hemisphere, El Nino plays havoc with the monsoon bringing crop failures to countries like India even as floods occur in regions which had never before experienced a deluge, rain forests recede, air pollution chokes us all and rare cancers and genetic mutations rise.

(L-R) Irreversible damage to the environment is visible in frequent flooding of cities; Investing in clean energy like solar panels is the need of the day
(L-R) Irreversible damage to the environment is visible in frequent flooding of cities; Investing in clean energy like solar panels is the need of the day

Does anybody really give a damn? Are international conclaves nothing more than debating societies? They need not be. They give us the future shock scenarios. They lay down roadmaps. They provide talking points for good science. They can serve to unite humanity in the service of nature.

But environmental concerns are only as good as the ability of nations to make laws and to regulate. International norms like the Euro standards for motor vehicle emissions can only be enforced if individual nations first begin to clean their house and actively seek domestic solutions. Politics, and the exigencies for making a quick buck, unfortunately, set the clock back and fast-forward the doomsday scenarios.

Politics, and the exigencies for making a quick buck, unfortunately, set the clock back and fast-forward the doomsday scenarios.

Take the case of India, one of the most polluted countries in the world—air, ground and water. Prime Minister Modi, like his friend Barack Obama, has made clean air, a cleaner Ganges, cleaner cities cornerstones of his good governance promises. While the US, under Obama, is clearly moving faster than before towards cleaner energy and trying to shake off its dependence on oil, India is marking time, perhaps even sliding backwards. One result of all the international conferencing has been the emergence of a clearly recognized need for clearly enunciated energy and environmental policies by national governments. Does India have any? Have they done any good? Are we progressing in the right direction? Apparently not.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April. Mere lip service to alternative and sustainable energy will not suffice. Photo: UNI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April. Mere lip service to alternative and sustainable energy will not suffice. Photo: UNI

A brief prepared by the OP Jindal Global University’s  Law and Policy Research Group bluntly states that the Modi government’s energy and environment policies have produced more harm than meets the eye. In a sweeping review of India’s regulatory landscape in the context of the pledges made by Modi on renewable energy and nuclear power, the promises “do not seem justified by the budget or official statements”.

There is a glaring paucity of funds to set these policies in motion, says the report, which also cites “lack of targeted incentives, shortage of energy supply for immediate consumption, an increasing dependence of (dirty) coal, the evolving issue of nuclear liability, corrupt environment regulatory mechanisms and scarce public participation (in Environment Impact Assessments, among other things)”.

Policy and administrative frameworks have failed to grapple with India’s burgeoning energy needs and policies. Here are highlights from this illuminating survey:

  • The Modi government must adopt a reliable national energy policy to keep pace with its industry-oriented economic model and reduce dependence on foreign resources, minimize carbon emissions and ensure the availability of lifeline levels of energy at affordable prices.
  • The Integrated Energy Policy Report published by the Planning Commission revealed that half of all Indians do not have access to energy and nearly 700 million of them rely on biomass as their primary source of fuel; the nation is largely dependent on imported oil; there are massive transmission losses from the electricity grid; and India is a major contributor to the steadily increasing emission of global greenhouse gases.
  • The current environmental policy has been criticized by activists who attack the current framework as designed only to meet Prime Minister Modi’s ambitions for industrial investment and growth and is wholly indifferent to the current needs of the industry. The recent suspension of the Greenpeace NGO seems evidence of an alliance between industry and government to silence criticism of this economic model.
  • Critics have lambasted the Subramaniam Committee report of environmental reform as “highly regressive” and causing “irreversible damage to environment and human rights”. The Committee’s recommendations, they argue, are oriented towards providing unprecedented access to land, water and other natural resources to large corporate bodies in order to pave the way for mega infrastructure, industrial and urban projects. They deplore the manner in which NGOs and environmental activists were not consulted and characterize the report as a result of secretive consultations with corporate bodies and lobby groups.
  • The Modi government has revamped its method of issuing “single window” green clearances for industrial and infrastructural projects that allegedly have been slowed down by the pace of their approval.
  • The Union budget makes only token allocations for “green” projects such as electrical vehicles.
  • While nuclear power may prove to be a viable, clean and sustainable source of energy, it is crucial that the government implement sufficient and satisfactory rehabilitation schemes for those displaced, ensure mechanisms for safe disposal of nuclear waste and invest in training of employees of nuclear power plants. The government must address issues of liability, rehabilitation and the spectrum of health effects that are associated with nuclear power to instill confidence in the public.
  • Power sector reforms have barely taken off. Prime Minister Modi must balance efforts to add more environmentally sustainable power with promises to bring universal access to electricity to India’s 1.24 billion people. While coal will continue to dominate for now, the environmental hazards of coal burning, including air pollution in New Delhi, and emissions of lung-damaging particulates add to the pressure for developing cleaner alternatives.

The report concludes that there is pressing need to implement an integrated energy policy. If India is to meet its goal of 8 percent growth, it cannot ignore the challenge of meeting energy needs. “The main areas of action include a reduction in energy consumption through efficiency and conservation, augmenting clean energy resources and supply, accelerating power reforms and promoting government support of the renewable sector.”

The survey is absolutely on target when it suggests that the challenge remains in matching these “green” reforms with the ambitious new industrial model and a need for a sustainable and energy-efficient future.

While recognizing that there is no single answer to India’s energy problems, the report recommends the formulation of a policy framework “without massive commitments of land and with reduced hydrocarbon dependence”, the harnessing of renewable energy options and a sensible and calibrated shift to nuclear energy options wherever possible.

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