Sunday, March 27, 2011

Earth [H] Our

Sent to me by my friend and one of the few young men who is doing his bit to keep the earth green. It is worth reading.

Earth (H)Our

At 8.30 pm on March 26th, as we turn off all electrical points in our homes for an hour, we could consider this an atonement, albiet a token one, for the economic runway that we have laid out for ourselves, riding on a blasphemous belief that energy – as much energy as we need - is a birthright.

Most people I know will switch off a light when they leave the room, yet this is hardly conservation; this is decency, protocol, the done thing, just as most people I know would say ‘Thank you’ when they were gifted a present. Conservation begins by questioning what could be done to change a lifestyle that is energy intensive and getting worse by the day.

A few months ago, a young journalist, Namrata Nandakumar, did a short study on electricity consumption in two urban spaces in Bangalore city. She first chose a slum which had ‘authorised’ access to electricity, a slum of three and a half thousand homes called Ullalu Upanagara, that houses about five times that number of people, during a post-monsoon month when there was no significant power cut. The monthly electricity bill for the entire colony was Rs. 2.38 lakhs. In contrast, Bangalore’s most popular mall, The Forum Mall, with a sanctioned load of 4 megawatts of electricity, had a monthly bill of about Rs. 85-90 lakhs (which included its expenditure on diesel for generators) for the energy it used with abandon, including the cooling of an enormous common areas around the day.

Recognise the sobering reality that energy is a finite resource currently in acute short supply in India. As the country’s GDP trots along, much more of it will be needed to supply basic energy needs to millions of our people as well as to meet the consumptive lifestyle of urban India. Energy comes at a cost, a cost well hidden from most of us who live in protected urban India and take planes when we travel : the costs, ecological, psychological, financial and otherwise, of displacement of people, damming of rivers, submergence of land and forests, pollution from thermal plants and carbon dioxide emissions and huge consumption of natural resources. Recognise that this is not a historical cost but a running one - for instance, the origins of the Maoist problem and the slums of urban India can be traced to our energy projects - and the true impact of the Mall’s consumption begins to emerge. Recognise, in addition, that the production of every litre of diesel needs 9,200 litres of water and 2-3% of the diesel that is imported into India is consumed in its own transportation to the consumer.

Yet, none of us would seem particularly perturbed with these numbers, ascribing them to a convenient rung on the ladder of development, for we empathise, not with the slum, but with the mall. It is a lifestyle that, though recent and foreign, is not negotiable. The biggest issue, of course, is that we – literate, well-read, well-meaning, intelligent as we are - do not connect the dots. We cannot, often do not, wish to see the impact of our actions on others. Let us then not blame the Americans for the climate mess we are in. Given an option, we have grabbed the ‘pollute’ lever ourselves for the short term gains that accrue from glamorous living.

I have in front of me, two recent articles that are very recent, yet hardly new in content. The first speaks of the protests last month against the East Coast Energy coal-fired power plant in Srikakulam district in Andhra, during which two people lost their lives, lives that were worth much more than any power plant could possibly match. This plant coming up next to a ecologically fragile wetland has, over the last couple of years, damaged the area and put many fishermen and farmers’ livelihoods in peril as the wetland is excavated and filled up in haste. The police were there, of course, to help push this private project through. This incident was merely a repeat: on July 14, 2010, in Sompeta, where the Nagarjuna Construction Company is building a thermal plant on a wetland, three persons were killed in clashes with the police.

The second article concerns a different source of energy that threatens a different species. If you make your way into the Athirapilly-Vazhachal forests of Kerala, as I have done – dense, wet deciduous forests of breathtaking beauty and surprise – you occasionally hear a loud, pitched call, a distinctive ‘tock-tock-tock’ , or sometimes a heavy whooshing sound. Look up or around (if you are by a ridge) and you might see the Great Indian Hornbill take to the air, the most beautiful, graceful, charismatic, even-tempered bird that has ever been. It is a bird that might see its habitat destroyed with a hydroelectric project proposed by the Kerala State Electricity Board that will generate a measly 160 megawatts, for the forty Forum-Mall-look-alikes that will dot the state to sell the resident Malayalee’s sole fetish: gold. The Hornbill, stunning as it is, is merely a representative species of the priceless biodiversity we stand to lose at Athirapilly, a portion of which is not even known to science as more discoveries enhance our sense of wonder at the mechanics of creation.

To set the record straight, the KSEB is hardly the first State Electricity Board to consider habitat of little use except for submergence, yet it was a pioneer in the destruction effort, with a plan made forty years ago to submerge the Silent Valley. It required the determined effort of Dr. Salim Ali and Mrs. Indira Gandhi to scuttle the project.

The destruction of forests, and the biodiversity within it, is a horrendous cost to pay for our lifestyle, yet it is a cost that few of us understand, even as the decision makers do the hypocritical act of planting the odd sapling to mark an Earth Day or a Wildlife Week. Much before additional power plants of any kind – thermal, nuclear or hydro – are planned, there is need, indeed a pressing, vital need, to use a system of incentives and disincentives to get the energy addicts (that’s us) to reduce our need for the fix. Yet, I have little faith in the Government’s ability to promote a culture of reduction and thrift and a lot more conviction in your ability to reason and conclude.

In my few years in conservation, never have I felt this alarmed at the speed of the consumption gravy-train. On March 26th, therefore, I have a request to make : please switch your lights, air coolers, water heaters and all else off, for just an hour. This, by itself, will make little difference, yet it will hopefully provide the darkness needed for a few moments of solitude.

In those moments, do think of just how you could become part of the solution, just how you could change the way you live your life to reduce, dramatically lessen, the need for energy. I repeat, target, not a 5% drop in consumption but, a 50% reduction in your energy demand. …for unless we press the brake now, the energy gravy train will run over the person on the railway track.

That person is you. And the time to heal the Earth is Now.

Warm regards,


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