April 14, 2011

In defence of Jaitapur

The Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project (JNPP) seems to be providing a focus for venting the frustrations directed at the venality and bad governance in our country. This by itself is a useful contribution, since our country needs a lot more constructive dissent. However, it is important to regroup the orchestra to its original score, namely the generation of energy for the country. Dissent without an alternative for energy generation on the same scale should be seen as sabotage.

Coal accounts for nearly 40 percent of India’s total energy consumption, followed by nearly 27 percent for combustible renewables and waste. Oil accounts for nearly 24 percent of total energy consumption, costing $79.6 billion in 2009-10, for 159.2 million tonnes of crude oil.  Around 30 percent of India’s total energy needs are met through imports. IEA data for 2008 indicate that electrification rates for India were nearly 65 per cent for the country as a whole. In urban areas, 93 percent had access to electricity compared to rural areas where electrification rates were approximately 50 percent. Roughly 400 million people do not have access to electricity in India.

Image: Laurimyllyvirta

In light of these facts, the need of ensuring energy security for the country cannot be a contentious issue, even while speaking for the rural, poor, or the disenfranchised of our country. It is a fatuous argument and a flagrant disregard for the social contract to suggest that the energy generated in a specific part of the country should only provide for the needs of that part of the country. If by the same logic, Punjab started producing just enough wheat to meet its own needs, let alone India, the world economy would be hit.

Energy input at the subsistence level would free the people from hard and unrelenting labour which is their customary lot. Energy generation is the primary step to enable supply at that level. Energy is the engine for growth. For a large country like India with over one billion population and rapid economic growth rate, energy multiplies human labour and increases productivity in agriculture, industry as well as in services. To sustain the growth rate in economy, energy supply has to grow in tandem.

The operative word behind any dissent has to be “constructive”. There is a whole list of bad practices that should be publicly discussed and avoided in future, there should be suggested interventions to ensure safe and equitable progress of the project, and all of these should be aired publicly, and made available for action. What seems to be happening instead is that the dissent is now about a show of political strength in order to extract mileage from the situation. There is a cynical attempt to disseminate misinformation, and scupper a project, in order to prove political clout. This is a manipulation of public opinion against national interests, and should be recognised as such.

According to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prepared for the Jaitapur project by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), the total land acquisition for JNPP site and residential complex is 938.026 hectares. This involves five villages: Madban, Warilwada, Karel, Niveli and Mithgavne, but does not involve physical displacement of any families.

The compensation paid for this land would be commensurate with the classification, although the actual figures are still under discussion. The compensation is a political issue, having no scientific or strategic underpinning. Of the total acquired land, the land acquired for the residential complex of 245.715 hectares is comparable to the JNPP site land in the land record classification, and is to be compensated in the similar framework.

Almost all the land acquired is of little agricultural value.It also does not fall under the category of forest land. Even so, a snapshot of the current status of the JNPP acquired site as far as biodiversity and conservation go is essential.

A pilot study carried out in order to prioritise areas for forest conservation in the Konkan region that encompass a few villages around the JNPP project site, states that less than 4 per cent of the species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list are found in the region. Moreover, most of these species are in the low risk categories. This may be due to the fact that high-risk, red listed species are totally lost in the region or due to the lack of an assessment of species within the region that fulfill red list criteria.

The JNPP relevant villages shown on the maps in this study, that have either threatened habitat types or highest species richness for a particular vegetation type lie north of the JNPP site. What this study indicates is that we have to bring in biodiversity and reforestation efforts around the JNPP project, where, at present, nothing that can be conserved exists.The NEERI EIA reports similar findings as regards marine life around the site.

The public perception of safety aspect of the energy generation in a nuclear power plants is an important criteria for the success of the project. The EIA gives all the details of the six layers of safety measures to be adopted in the design of the plant and also elaborates on the disposal procedure for the spent fuel from the plant. It is very important that these procedures are scrupulously followed, and systems are put in place for safe handling of the material.

Transparency in these matters and safety audits should be an integral part of the project operations. Both the Chernobyl disaster and the ongoing post-quake crisis in Fukushima should be seen in the context of over 400 functional nuclear reactors safely generating power all over the world.

There is an overwhelming need to think about money involved in this project. There is just one bank, a cooperative one at that, operating in this area. Those purportedly concerned about the local people should look at the fiscal health of this bank, provide alternative financial services, and enable delivery mechanisms for the money to flow to legitimate recipients.

One also needs to think about the urbanisation process that this money would inevitably bring about. We have to set standards for this de novo urbanisation about to occur in an area, where the current population density is 150 persons per square km, and whereby the population density for Maharashtra varies between 300-500 persons per square km. The new influx of money and people should not create unplanned and unsightly sprawls marring scenic beauty and clean air in these parts. Houses should be strictly regulated in height, say no taller than coconut groves, and each residential project must nurture a given number of trees proportional to the people using the property. Architectural guidelines such as slanting roofs as against leaky flat roofs, suitable for the local climatic conditions have to be laid down for any future building construction in the area.

Transportation needs around the JNPP site should be based on waterways with strictly limited fossil fuel consumption. Influx of promised money and benefit of this money felt by the local population—rather than carpetbaggers who are bound to gather there—is vital for the success for this project.

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