‘Last mile connectivity for power consumers can be better achieved by establishing more wind and solar plants’
Ritwick Dutta is co-founder and managing trustee of Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment. For over a decade he’s used different legal forums to enforce adherence to environmental laws. In a conversation with Manka Behl, he explains the problems of expanding thermal power capacity:
The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) data shows that over 60 coal based thermal plants are in the pipeline. Why might this not help the 16.3 crore Indians still living without electricity?
The same authority’s report clearly states that India doesn’t need any new power plants till 2027. In the preface of its vision document for renewable energy, Niti Aayog accepts that dependency on coal is the biggest reason why people are not getting access to electricity. However, one glance at the ministry of power’s website shows that India is generating excess power every day.
If these reasons aren’t enough, state-run power giants are not going ahead with the slated expansion of coal plants after conceding that the price of renewable energy is far lower than the power generated from coal.
Setting up a coal fired plant requires minimum five years, as against the five to six months for a renewable unit. Last mile connectivity for power consumers can be better achieved by establishing more wind and solar plants. But, instead of going for them, we are bringing in more coal fired plants which are not just taking away huge forest lands but are also the highest consumers of water and most polluting industrial units. To distribute power to every household, the country needs to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels, but it is doing just the opposite.
Before we add a single megawatt of coal fired unit, we need to ensure full compliance of environmental norms by existing plants.
Presuming the power units will install the required technologies for mitigating pollution, what is the guarantee that the units would make best use of the technology?
The only solution is making all the information available to the public, which is also one of the conditions in the environment clearance issued to the units. The issue is not just about installing an FGD (flue gas desulphurisation) or an electrostatic precipitator (ESP) but for how long they are going to run. Power units can have a system but there is no way for people to know if it’s working or not. Therefore, all the monitoring results should be accessible.
The debate over indispensability of FGD to control sulphur dioxide continues. When will a clear picture emerge?
After a detailed process and consultation over several meetings, the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) and ministry of power had notified the new emission norms on December 7, 2015, for thermal power plants which must achieve the stipulated standards for water consumption, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. Till date, no power company has challenged the new norms. No agency or authority has come forward to say that FGD is not viable or is a wrong technology. All they keep asking is for time.
When do state pollution control boards step in? Is their job limited to only issuing notices?
Many of these boards are not doing much apart from writing standard letters to polluting units. It is a misconception that the board is not an action-taking authority. In every instance where there is a violation of Air or Water Act, the board has legal powers to initiate stringent action. It has two options: either file a criminal complaint before the judicial magistrate or file a civil application for restoration and compensation before the National Green Tribunal (NGT). However, very few states are following these judicial procedures.
In many cases, we have seen blatant violation of NGT orders.
There was a time when a court’s order was the final thing. Today, an order is the beginning of an action. Order of any court ultimately needs the presence of civil society to make it speak. Proving something illegal is not enough and the classic example of this is Ganga and Yamuna river cases where the apex court’s orders on their conservation were blatantly violated.
After Maharashtra, UP is planning to ban plastic. When it comes to environment conservation and economic sustainability, what should we choose?
Every ban should take place in phases so that its impact is minimised. Having said that, it also important to consider the views of those who are impacted. The government need not necessarily take consent from every stakeholder because they will never give their complete nod. The state should be selective and choose whose views should be taken in. It must factor in the transition cost too. Whenever imposing a ban on something which was per se legal, there must be a switchover time and assessment for those who are marginal. A ban should cause minimum hardship to the people who are not responsible for the problem. It should be achieved gradually, with a definite timeline and milestones to achieve.