Mainstream, Vol XLV No 24
A Fresh Look at Singur in the Light of Climate Change Warning
Saturday 2 June 2007, by#socialtags
The recent Bangkok meeting of scientists from all over the world has warned of dire changes in earth’s climate due to global warming caused by green-house gases. The polar ice will melt; the sea will rise and inundate coastal cities, such as Venice, Mumbai, Chennai, Shanghai etc. These are prognosis for the future. Let us look at what has already happened or is happening:
1. The Gangotri, Jamunotri and many other glaciers of the Himalayas have been receding by as much as several tens of metres every year. This means that these glaciers are shrinking fast and rivers fed by them would stop being perennial.
2. The Sagar island, off the coast of West Bengal, has lost 70 square kilometres of its land mass to the rising sea rendering thousands of people homeless.
3. The rising sea has caused the rivers of the Sundarbans to swell and erode banks reducing the size of many deltaic islands. If the sea takes a few decades to erode the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, and thereafter Kolkata would not last much longer.
4. Flood waters in Bangladesh are taking much longer to drain out because of the higher sea level. The whole of the deltaic Bengal, that sustains the cities of Kolkata, Khulna and Chittagong, is in the grip of potential danger. It can safely be asserted that the two Bengals would be the first to feel the pinch due to global climate change.
In this backdrop the West Bengal Government wishes to expand the most eco-hostile of all industries, the car industry, the biggest emitter of green-house gases. The car from Singur will be the cheapest and that is why the ‘most irresponsible’ car of the world.
THE West has invested heavily in industrial research on how to scrub CO2 (Carbon-dioxide), the main agent of global warming, out of the exhaust plumes of power plants. The idea is to liquefy the scrubbed gas and store it underground in exhausted coal and salt mines or under sea water. This is called Carbon Sequestration. Scientists are well aware that such a measure is not viable in the long run. It is intended as a short-term step to ward off the present crisis and meant only for the next 40 years or so, that is, till the oil-wells of the world get exhausted. According to most studies, the global oil reserves will last till 2050, give and take a few years. Carbon Sequestration will soon be possible from power plants but not from cars, the intended product of Tata Singur. The least the Government of West Bengal can do is to ask the Tatas to change the project from cheap cars to some other eco-friendly product. I suggest a solar thermal power plant with the provision of government buy-back at a guaranteed price for every unit of electricity. The present price of energy is too low because it does not factor in the social and environmental costs of energy production.
Dual Crisis and Need for Energy Agriculture
THE media, both electronic and print, are agog with the news of the climate change crisis. The other looming crisis, which would be due to exhaustion of oil reserves by 2050, does not get much attention. Research to find a substitute for petrol and diesel has been going on for a few decades and has scored a few successes. Alcohol has been successfully used to run a car or a power plant. Some vegetable oils, such as Linseed, Rice Bran, Karanja and Jatropha, have been found promising as replacements for diesel. Vegetable oil and Alcohol, collectively called bio-fuels, when used as a source of energy do not damage the environment because the plant life that produces bio-fuel absorbs Carbon-dioxide, maintaining a perfect balance in the carbon cycle. The IITs are doing research in bio-fuels mentioned above. But the bottom-line is that all these bio-fuels are produced on land by agriculture. In 10 years time energy agriculture is likely to be fashionable as an essential infrastructure for industry. West Bengal will then miss the bus because it is sacrificing fertile land now for eco-hostile industry and housing complexes and shopping malls for the rich.
1. Neither the world nor India can sustain the present level of energy consumption in the long term. However, we cannot do without motor vehicles. Therefore, the emphasis should be on public transport and not on individual transport such as cars. We need buses, trucks and a limited number of cars but the goal should be a drastic reduction in total number of motor vehicles. We were in such a situation only 20 years ago when our city roads were not choked with cars. In 1991 we changed direction, when our present Prime Minister was the Finance Minister, and we raced helter-skelter toward an energy intensive economy in the name of dismantling a ‘permit-quota-licence raj’. It was possible to remove this raj with an alternative model of economy. We should have emulated Denmark and Singapore in having high-priced cars, beyond the reach of the middle class, by imposing a very high duty on all cars, foreign and home-made. India, Denmark and Singapore are all oil-importing countries.
2. We must preserve our arable and forest lands at any cost. A well-managed forest can supply timber and fuel wood and provide sustenance to animals and environment. At the moment we are losing our forests and the animals.
3. We must ration all land for housing, as is done by Singapore. The rich must be prevented from squandering land for luxury housing.
4. None of the above measures will work unless we practice strict population control. China enforces a one-child norm per couple and is reducing its population. Let us at least enforce the two-child norm by disincentives which should be graded, heavier for the rich and lighter for the poor, but effective for both.
OUR rivers are already as heavily polluted as dirty drains. As the glaciers recede they would become seasonal dirty drains. Not long ago they were a perennial source of life. The forests are shrinking. Good top soil is washed away by rains due to the vanishing green cover and/or converted into bricks to supply the ever-expanding human settlements in towns and villages, necessary for housing the burgeoning population. The sea is rising and will claim enormous land all along the enormous coast-line. The time to act is now. The fact is that time is running out.
Dr Kunal Ghosh is a Professor, Aerospace Engineering, IIT, Kharagpur