Sarita Sarvate

No Energy to Take Care of Mom in India

Aug 05, 2008

India Currents

BY SARITA SARVATE

Editor’s Note: After going from California to India to take care of her ailing mother, commentator Sarita Sarvate is confronted by the stark reality of the energy divide between the world’s haves and have-nots. It gives her a new perspective on the importance of the troubled Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. NAM contributor Sarvate is a physicist and a writer for India Currents and other publications. Visit her online.

NAGPUR, India -- I sit by my 85-year-old mother who recently suffered a stroke, fanning her with a newspaper and wishing I had brought along the tiny battery-operated fan I was given as a freebie at a recent energy conference.

When it is time for her to have food, I embark on the ritual of heating small portions of rice, daal, and vegetable in separate bowls on the propane gas stove; we have no microwave.

Afterwards, I wander onto the veranda and discover that four days after washing, my clothes on the line are still damp, taking on that familiar musty smell that is associated in my memory with the monsoon, which has finally arrived after a delay of five weeks, making me wish that we had a clothes dryer.

HandfansThe trouble is, after putting his son through engineering college and supporting a daughter who is working towards a degree in computer science, my brother, a retired civil engineer, can barely meet the cost of living; he cannot afford to purchase such appliances, let alone pay the electricity bill for running them.

Perhaps it is just as well, for electricity goes off for 5, 6 hours during the height of the day in daily mandatory power cuts labeled as load shedding.

So I can’t help feeling survivor’s guilt. I, who have been living in California for decades, am among the planet’s energy haves while my birth family, which still lives in the eastern part of India’s Maharashtra State, belongs to the world’s energy have-nots.

Maharashtra has suffered severe electricity shortages since Enron went bankrupt in 2001, abandoning its 2000 megawatt power project. Since then the electricity crisis here has gotten worse. Currently, the state suffers a shortage of 5200 megawatts, the equivalent of five large power plants.

To make matters worse, climate change has been a reality, with monsoons becoming increasingly unreliable and hydropower production severely reduced because reservoirs have less than 30 percent of capacity.

Recently, Rahul Gandhi, former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s grandson, arrived in the area, to sell the ruling coalition’s nuclear deal with the United States; his first stop was the mud hut of Kalavati, a widow whose husband committed suicide due to mounting debt. This suicide is not an isolated incident; thousands have perished in the last half-decade because of backbreaking debts caused by high costs of seeds marketed by foreign companies and crop failures due to unreliable monsoons.

Gandhi’s gesture was intended to convey the message that nuclear power would better the lives of farmers and peasants through improved irrigation and mechanized farming. Ironically, Kalavati has no electricity; her only consolation being that in many villages in the region, load shedding extends anywhere from 14 to 22 hours a day, so having an electric connection makes little difference.

The Indian news media, a la CNN and Fox News, pounced upon Kalavati’s story, and within days, the widow had not only earned fifteen minutes of fame but two solar lanterns and a hundred thousand rupees in the bank.

Thousands of other similarly situated widows and farmers received nothing but a glimmer of hope that another VIP’s random visit might bring a lantern to their mud huts.

A day after Gandhi’s visit, the Nagpur Chamber of Commerce held a candle-lit meeting to protest the impact of load shedding on small businesses.

Power shortages are not just endemic to Maharashtra. India as a whole will need about 80,000 MW of additional power by 2012, almost twice the peak demand in California, but has been able to add only a quarter of the capacity. A major constraint is that India’s major resource is dirty coal.

Studies suggest that to meet India’s future demand, India will have to import coal.

Besides, communities in my region of Maharashtra are already following Western environmental activists’ playbook in forming Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) movements. They point out that the region exports power which is shipped to urban areas like Pune which have no load shedding, while residents around power plants here have to put up with power cuts and suffer from chronic illnesses like asthma.

Just about now I can hear American voices asking, but what about greenhouse gases, what about environmental regulations before India ratchets up its energy supply?

What most Americans do not know is that India is already active in reducing its carbon footprint, instituting smog check laws, proposing controversial flush-less toilets for public housing projects, and considering green buildings. A carbon trading system is in the works. Biofuels and solar energy are being developed.

Still, to provide a decent life so that daily survival is not a struggle for people like my brother and for those far lower on the economic ladder, India needs many more power plants.

The nuclear treaty with the United States will not solve all of India’s energy problems but it will help.

Alas, news reports indicate that after the Indian government’s successful political showdown with the opposition over the deal, U.S. Congress may not get around to approving the deal after all.

So after suffering three weeks of deprivation here, I am ready to go back home and write to my senator urging her to approve the nuclear deal with India promptly.