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Amidst the Paris negotiations of 2015, the International Solar Alliance (ISA), as initiated by India and France, has come to garner attention and propel discussions and analyses at the level of academia as well as international politics. Inaugurated, apparently, with the intention of feeding the increasing energy demand of the developing world, the idea of the treaty-based alliance has come to draw heavily from India’s domestic programme of ‘Atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance with its vision summarised in the phrase- ‘One World, One Sun, One Grid’. The articulations of the alliance are seeking to create a benchmark for sustainable development in the coming decade among the member countries, via harnessing solar capabilities of the ‘solar-resource-rich countries’ of the world. As a frontrunner of the alliance, India has committed to the installation of 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable projects with 100GW of it to be from solar installations by 2022 domestically, and also take a leadership role in creating a ‘multi-stakeholder sustainable energy ecosystem’ of countries towards cleaner energy alternatives. While the ISA recognises about 122 countries as ‘Suryaputras’ (literally meaning ‘sons of the sun’ alluding to countries with geographical privilege of long exposure to harnessable sunlight), the alliance seeks to bring about energy equity by analysing common challenges in establishing solar energy applications among the member states and resolving these issues as a collective platform via organizing relevant financing for relevant technologies, assimilating long-term investment in the sector, scaling up research and development in the field; the ultimate intent being propelling economic progress and eradication of poverty under the auspices of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development among the most vulnerable developing nations of the world. Currently, there are 98 signatories to the ISA Framework Agreement, among which 79 countries have ratified it.

The basis of this alliance can be viewed under two broad heads:

  1. The perception of solar technologies as clean energy sources and a viable and feasible alternative to fossil fuels. Superficially observed, this can be touted as an impressive initiative that reiterates the growing global concerns about the environment and subsequent reduction of reliance on emission intensive fuels.
  2. It aims to create an alliance between vulnerable economies, that might not have respective economic capability as well as technological know-how to move towards cleaner alternatives of energy consumption by relying on one another, for creating such opportunities for sustainability by approaching the problem from a common platform like collective initiatives in harnessing indigenous solar technologies, mobilization of investments in the field, etc. In other words, being ‘self-reliant’ in approaching energy equity among the member nations is a foundation of ISA.

Both the above mentioned approaches have their fair share of challenges that must be scrutinised to understand the feasibility of energy equity to begin with. Firstly, while the cost of solar technology has come down over the years, it still remains an expensive alternative to produce power, not only in terms of direct cost of installation technology and storage equipment but also in terms of cost of imports, cost of land for building these installation, the cost of displacement of people living on that land, cost of just transitioning of the energy grid (as a whole) etc. Even considering the reduction of cost of solar technology in recent years, China has continued to dominate the solar supply chain of the world, especially vis a vis developing countries that depend on import, including India. The global pandemic has brought to fore the impact of such a reliance on imports from China on India’s solar sector and impending installations. India’s commitment to be ‘atmanirbhar’ in solar technology, in so many words to counter China, despite the establishment of the National Solar Mission in the 2010s, is yet to yield viable results. Even the areas of the solar sector that have indeed exhibited turnout ‘results’ (India’s solar installed capacity, as it stands today, is 41GW, achieving a 20GW capacity target by 2022 set by the previous government four years ahead of its time), are domestic solar missions that must be looked at and studied, rather, with a pinch of salt.

A large section of the solar installed capacity promised to be in action, in the coming years, in India are from private enterprises like Adani Green Energy Ltd which has projects laid out in 66 locations across 11 Indian states. The power sector of India itself has come to be heavily privatized in recent years with the involvement of private entities in power distribution and supply. While it has been observed by the government that private-public initiatives will bring in more efficiency in power distribution, the fact of the matter remains that DISCOMs have continued to pay private power suppliers exorbitant prices, leading to financial losses within the banking sector and accumulation of debts. There is no guarantee that the solar power sector in India will not be subjected to similar fate in the years to come. In the case of Bhadla Solar Park, the biggest solar park in India, with a solar capacity of 2245MW, the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) and the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) have auctioned off developing capacity to a bunch of private entities like Azure, ReNew Power, ACME, South Africa’s Phelan Energy Group, Avada Power, Hero Future Energies, etc. Further, there have been problems of land acquisition and resistance from residents of the area in the above project (even while it has been declared fully operational in December 2019), as well as several other solar power projects in the country. The most recent case in point could be of the capture of cultivable land of Karbi and Adivasi people by the Azure Power Forty Private Ltd with the help of local authorities in Nagaon, Assam. Given, solar power projects do require large stretches of land to match its energy consumption requirements, in a densely populated country like India such projects are bound to run into ethical land acquisition hurdles. What has been the path forward in such cases, for the government of India, has been rather unclear. While the commitment of the state has been to initiate such projects in areas that are deemed wasteland (like in the case of Bhadla Solar Park), what constitutes a ‘wasteland’ might be subjective. As has been the case with the government’s much celebrated Blue Economy policy (whereby marine ecology is set to be harnessed for creating long term economic opportunities for the country), where the coast of the country is being inaccurately assessed as unoccupied for new public-private partnership projects despite the fishing communities traditionally living and working in those spaces in harmony with the ecology, for solar power projects too, the land which most often comes to be declared as unviable might in reality be a biodiversity hotspot with unique ecological value. Thus, employing a unidimensional lens to such aspirations can be viewed as exclusive to majoritarian camouflaging of the real, long standing issues of the power sector plaguing the country (from fossil and renewable sources alike).

Going back to the two points in the beginning of the piece, firstly, one must investigate the real deal with ‘Atmanirbharta’ to begin with, both in terms of India’s domestic renewable policy as well as it being set as a standard and example for other countries in the ISA. While one can revel at the possibility of a future one has not seen, who is to become self-reliant in the process of the establishment of these processes and programmes and secondly, who are to pay the cost of it (in terms of social and environmental impact) simultaneously are questions that must be raised in academic spaces. There are ample illustrations of ecological faux pas in the world to learn from in this regard. For example, when Brazil embarked on the drive to 100 percent electrification of households in the country via ‘sustainable’ means, there was much fanfare around growing hydropower projects commissioned in the country. Today, while around 99 percent of households in the country are electrified, construction of dams have caused irreversible damage to the tropical ecology of the country, erasing forests, displacing and impoverishing indigenous population, and in turn exposing the country to years of drought and reversed dependence on fossil fuels during the drought seasons (because of no forest, no rain, no water in the rivers and no electricity from the hydel projects), thereby leading to one of the highest power tariffs structures in the world in the long run. Meanwhile, the power producing and distributing corporations are continuing to run on profit motive. Thus, when overarching terms like ‘stakeholders’ and ‘consultants’ are being applied while legitimising the process of solar research missions in the ISA member countries like Senegal, Guinea, Benin, Congo, Mali, Niger, Togo, Uganda, etc, as pilot programmes, the layers of the terms must be demystified. Do real people, communities and their aspirations find assertion in these collaborations between countries and are they the real ‘stakeholders’ or is it an exclusive private investors club? Are people to be ‘consulted’ while researching on the socio economic and ecological issues within the power sectors in these countries or is the consultation to be limited to international privately run auditing and accounting service providers like KPMG India, or international financial institutions like the European Investment Bank (EIB), the World Bank, etc? Hence, to begin with, in the long run, can these even be proclaimed to be ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’ power projects?

In conclusion, while transition to sustainable sources of energy must be encouraged, especially keeping in mind global emissions and climate change concerns, there is the need to take a closer look at the cost of this transition in terms of human security. On paper, India trying to take a lead in an initiative that has the potential to foster solidarities across the developing world, is commendable. However, these solidarities must not be cultivated as top down approaches but rather must be from the bottom up to be sincerely and legitimately sustainable. Finally, India’s ambition to be seen as the harbinger of change in the international energy market must tally with its domestic reality. Even with import duties in place, India continues to import key parts of solar technology, minerals and equipment. What geopolitical strategic lever India might be able to pull by leading this treaty initiative, the ISA, when the country’s own “just transitioning to renewables” is mired with various roadblocks, is yet to be seen.

Picture courtesy: Science in HD on Unsplash 

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