Power struggles in India
There was something faintly ludicrous about the giant, glowing globe that Greenpeace placed in the middle of Patna, the capital city of one of India’s poorest states. Four storeys high, it housed a photo exhibition and conference room, and ran entirely off renewable energy. Six solar panels and two windmills stood next to it: at odds with the crumbling colonial architecture behind them, and a backdrop to the lines of sitting, watching men and nosing stray dogs that you find in every public space in India. Made of light, flexible wooden poles bent to form the shape of a sphere, the dome was three-quarters covered with a tarpaulin sheet printed with a map of the world. During the day, when you stood inside it, you could see the outline of the continents’ geographies from within: a world inside out.
Patna is the capital of Bihar, a central-eastern state with an electricity problem, amongst its many other problems. In 2008-2009, the state had an energy shortage of 1,726 million units or 17% of their total requirements. In peak times, the shortage was as great as 28%. There’s a peak power shortage in almost every state in India, but Bihar’s is particularly severe. The traditional approach for plugging these deficits – adding generating capacity to a centralised grid system by building large, coal-fired thermal power plants – is not really an option for Bihar, as it lost its mineral deposits with the bifurcation of the state in 2000. In the cities, residents, offices and factories might get power for a majority of the hours in a day, if they’re lucky. In the rural areas, they’re lucky if they get any regular supply at all. For some, this means a reliance on weak and smoky kerosene lamps, or simply going to bed when it gets dark. For most, this means paying for an electricity supply from diesel merchants: enterprising individuals who import diesel, run it through noisy generators, and distribute power to households and shops through micro-grids. Diesel is expensive, of course, and there’s no regulation on pricing. The irony is that Bihar’s poor often end up paying more for basic power than the more affluent populations in the cities.
If it was this incongruity between the installation and its location that gave the giant sphere an air of something ludicrous, it also gave it one of something beautiful. It’s a quality that lies beneath the best of Greenpeace actions: the David and Goliath, the compelling flicker of hope that captures the imagination, and from it the loyalty of supporters. It’s there in protesters clinging to the towering links of the anchor of an oil drilling ship; in a simple message fluttering from the 14-metre arm of Christ the Redeemer above Rio de Janeiro; in a confrontation with illegal logging when you know the collusion goes up to the heights of government. And I think it was there in this glowing, humming dome, running off the technology of the future in a state dismissed by many as India’s most backward.
‘Bihari’ in India doesn’t simply mean a person from Bihar, it has a lot of negative connotations. It’s used by Indians from other states as a joke-insult to suggest a stereotype of someone who’s poor or uncouth, or who might arrive in large groups to undertake manual labour.
It can’t be denied that Bihar has social problems. An official assessment in 2009 estimated that 55% of people lived below the poverty line (BPL), though the state has long been battling the central government to have that figure acknowledged as even higher. “I’d say that realistic BPL figures are 30-40% above what they are officially,” agrees Brikesh Singh, a Greenpeace campaigner who has toured villages in 15 districts of the state to raise awareness of renewable energy. “We met a lot of people who haven’t registered themselves with the village heads, but whose living conditions would definitely be classified as impoverished.”
Bihar is the third most populated state in an already highly populous country, and growing rapidly. Patna is both growing faster than Delhi, and more polluted than it – due not least to the thick fumes from diesel generators. Yet the state’s biggest social hurdle has been its obdurate caste system, a bastion of ancient times that has refused to loosen with modern developments in the way that other states’ have. Voters identify themselves with politicians based on this hierarchical social order, and so the politics of the state have long been dominated by caste loyalty, rather than an examination of performance of the ruling parties. The most famous accused of caste-based politics is Lalu Prasad Yadav, who rose from a lower-caste family to become the chief minister of Bihar in 1990, before being forced to resign following his implication in a multi-million dollar fodder scam in 1997. His wife then served in the same position for the seven years following that, and is widely dismissed as having been a puppet head for her husband.
Everyone admits that Lalu is charismatic, most assert he’s corrupt. Yet for many in the lower castes, his rise to the heights of political power is a thrilling triumph in which they find a vicarious satisfaction. Evidence of corruption is either overlooked or revelled in as a means to wealth. It’s common for the Yadavs, a Hindu caste of Krishna devotees, to keep cows in their houses. There’s a rumour Lalu keeps his in an air-conditioned room. Outside, kidnapping and extortion were so rife during his governance that people were afraid to leave their houses after dark.
Things changed in 2005, when a coalition of parties led by Nitish Kumar finally ousted Lalu from his seat of power. In the five years Nitish has been Chief Minister, law and order has improved, the state’s famously terrible roads have been replaced over long distances, and his much-publicised policy of issuing free bicycles to female students has seen an improvement in school attendance.
It’s now the state Assembly elections again and Nitish is defending his position from the indefatigable Lalu. Who and what will triumph? Lalu, with his caste loyalties and proclamations of victory for the socially-put-upon? Or Nitish, with his talk of development, waving a favourable report card from the last five years?
All parties release manifestos before the election, and those of both Nitish and Lalu have acknowledged energy access as an issue in the state. Largely as a result of the Greenpeace campaign in Bihar, which has been operating for almost a year, both manifestos also mention the potential of decentralised renewable energy to fill that gap.
The elections are made up of six phases and four have passed already. In those four phases, voter turnout was twice 54%; once 52%; and once 45%: higher than some other, less disadvantaged states in India, and that in defiance of the ban placed in polling stations by the Maoists. The results still won’t be out for a couple of weeks but interest won’t drift in Bihar’s street discussion circles.
Investment in renewable energy could quickly provide energy access for people in Bihar. Technologies tapping into solar energy, micro-hydro or biomass are quick to set up, particularly in small systems. Building an energy network in this decentralised manner could mean that communities have more of a say in the running and output of their power stations, and could start to address the energy inequity that exists over the urban/rural line. Of course Bihar has many issues to be tackled – crime, health and education which cannot ever be seen as secondary priorities – but so many of these correlate with a ready energy supply. The advantages most brandished by NGOs are light for children to study by or for women to engage in income generating activities such as crafts in the evenings. But it’s also refrigerators for vaccines in clinics, pumping water to irrigate crops or powering a machine and starting a business around it.
Bihar has some of the most sophisticated ancient history of all India. The oldest university in the world is in Nalanda, and three hours from Patna is the tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were to recreate that sophistication by shunning the traditional energy sources, whose centralised distribution grids are failing to deliver power to the poor, and investing in renewable energy? A different type of enlightenment, perhaps, but all the richer for it.Tagged in: Bihar, development, elections, electricity, Greenpeace, India, renewable energy
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