Any Act or bill to get an act on electricity (or the larger issues of primary energy), has to first comprehend the basic functions electricity has in human society. Presumably, some form of electricity might have kick-stared life on earth, and natural electricity still plays a major role in many ecosystems. But we as human society are fundamentally occupied with tapping natures resources for producing electricity, that provides a range of essential goods and services to all sections of human society (or is supposed to do so). That should be our priority, before striving to produce and supply more electricity for the luxuries of the elite, if at all.
A ‘reasonable amount’ of electricity serves as one of the essential services to all sections of modern human societies, as it has come to be in the last 138 years, from the world’s first public electricity supply in early 1880s in survey, Godalming, UK, and in India from 1890s, starting from Kolkata (then called Calcutta). Any method of production of electricity, from any available natural sources of primary energy, is basically an extractive process, with associated environmental and social impacts of varying degrees. The level of impacts on both the natural ecosystems and the sections of society that might be adversely impacted, goes up with the levels of extraction of the basic source and conversion to electricity. And this applies to all sources –
the more coal we mine, transport and burn, the more is the deforestation, and more air, water and noise pollution, which adversely affect the people who live in that area or farther where that polluted air or water travels. On top of that, the CO2 emitted causes global warming that leads to climate change, affecting every living beings on earth. The more solar energy we produce, the more Solar PhotoVoltaic panels we have to produce with associated chemical and other energy-consumption related pollution, and more land area we will need to cover with those PV panels, taking them away from food production and sometimes, from farmers and pastoralists who might not have any other livelihood options, but dependence on that piece of land. Any hydropower dam we build to produce electricity also irreversibly alters and damages the river and its silt carrying functions, its biodiversity and the services it was providing to numerous riverine communities, both human and non-human.
Thus, any Electricity Bill or policy or Act, must first internalize this, and make a sincere, honest and competent effort to arrive at the minimum amount of electricity that will give reasonably comfortable lives, and to run its economy for providing jobs and services to all its citizens to a reasonable level. These national or societal needs have to be balanced with the amount of damage or harm the extraction-production-waste dumping processes from that electricity industry produces, the economic cost at which this electricity is supplied to various sections of society for their easy affordability. Neither the Electricity Act 2003 nor the Electricity (Amendment)
Bill 2020 seems to have any of those concerns! Neither do they show concern about environmental impacts of electricity production- transmission-distribution-use chain, nor about its possible or potential impacts on people living in those impacted environments.
The 2003 Act and the 2020 Bill, both are also totally oblivious of what could be a reasonable estimate of electricity need for our society to operate at a reasonably comfortable yet sustainable level. This exercise to determine a societies/countries electricity policy should also include a comparative analysis of the total external costs of different forms of electricity productions, from basic energy source extraction, the process of conversion and end of life treatments. This kind of exercise will give the policymakers a clearer view of the best possible methods of producing, transmitting and distributing the minimum necessary electricity the country needs at any given point in its economic and social progress, while minimising the inevitable adverse social and environmental impacts on the vulnerable populations and ecosystems. Again, no such exercise has been attempted either in the 2020 bill or its preceding 2003 Act! Without such exercises, any electricity policy (to be implemented through an Act) cannot deliver the best possible services to our society, and may even end up doing more harm to vulnerable sections.
Coming down to some specifics of the 2020 Bill, one would surely question about the timing and the hurry of bringing this bill at this stressed time of a national lockdown, while fighting a pandemic. Unless the government wants to take advantage of the diversion of public and political attention to fighting COVID-19, and get damaging and regressive things passed in parliament without enough scrutiny, this bill should have been deferred to a better time when more concentrated attention can be given to such an important aspect of national economy and well-being.
Clearly, the bills continuing attempt to categorise hydro-power with renewable energy sources, is a misguided and questionable one. Any big hydropower installation on a river changes that river irreversibly, with all-round impacts on both upstream and downstream communities, aquatic and peripheral wildlife, and even the geography of the river basin. Clearly not renewable. The attempt can only be interpreted as a corporate friendly measure to give relief to investors in big-hydropower, as they are in economic quagmire due to the non-viability of these projects. Combined with incentives to renewable sectors, this attempt can be seen as a less-than-honest attempt to bring in damaging hydropower projects with undeserved support of public finance. This has the added danger of promoting many bigger ecosystem devastating hydropower projects in the fragile Himalayas, seen as the “last big source of untapped hydro-power potential”, through the mighty rivers.
Though some might have reservations, in my understanding, the proposal to have a separate policy for renewable energy (minus hydro-power, of course), has some merits, of course if that is attempted with greater societal benefits as objectives. This can be seen together with the Section 4 of the 2003 Act, which talks about a national policy on ‘Stand Alone’ systems for rural areas and non-conventional energy, and also Section 5 of the same Act which talks about operating and managing rural energy systems by Panchayati Raj institutions, Users Associations, Co-op Societies etc. Applied with the right orientation. In our country, and in many others, renewable energy has been seen through the narrow lens of electricity only, whereas, electricity contributes less than 20% of India’s total primary energy supply. Bringing renewable energy out of an Electricity Act will give more options to explore its beneficial use in many decentralized, appropriate community-controlled technology based thermal and other applications.
A dangerous thread that runs throughout the Bill, is the constant push towards privatisation, and “recovering cost” from users, irrespective of social or other considerations, as it was started through the 2003 Act itself. The proposal to eliminate cross subsidies might look economically justified to some, who are prone to ignore social justice aspects. But even with economic considerations alone, the question should be posed that why those rural farmers and other residents, who lost their land and its economic (leave alone the sustenance and cultural and security) values, should not benefit economically, or be given economic and other preferences on that same electricity generated out of resources they owned and controlled till now? The entire farming community, leaving apart a small minority of rich landlords, are in strong economic and social distress today, while still giving us all the vital food security that we all need. With subsidised power being withdrawn, or made conditional to prior deposits etc., how many small and marginal farmers, even medium farmers will be trapped in debt, will lose social standings, and will be forced to commit suicide? Or is the govt ready to give them the real cost of the food they produce, which often will be 2-3 times the artificially depressed cost that we see today? No way this provision can be allowed to go through.
Part XA of the Bill, which introduces functions and structure of the proposed Electricity Contract Enforcement Authority, is clearly a ‘malignant entity’. With the Electricity regulatory commissions, the CEA, the Appellate Authorities, and the larger judicial system in the country, the legal enforcement mechanisms are already in place. To suddenly come up with something to bypass that legal system, is suspect. The purpose clearly is to continue to give the corrupt corporations to manipulate government functionaries in the power departments into signing money-siphoning contracts with these private power producers, at completely unjustified and indefensible terms (as has been done in many cases), and to safeguard these corporate loot of public money for years and decades to come. Clearly done with a mal-intentioned economic piracy objective.
There are other issues. But in the interest of space, will end this here.