Narendra Modi, India’s New Prime Minister, Can’t Overlook Faltering Energy Production

Near Rishikesh, in Uttarakhand, India, a passenger train makes its way south toward New Delhi. India's new prime minister raised fares 14 percent n June 2014, one of his first acts in office. Photo/Keith Schneider
Near Rishikesh, in Uttarakhand, India, a passenger train makes its way south toward New Delhi. India’s new prime minister raised fares 14 percent n June 2014, one of his first acts in office. Photo/Keith Schneider

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept into office in May on a message of aspiration, and a reputation for action.

During the nearly 13 years that Modi served as chief minister of Gujarat, before arriving in New Delhi, his successes included drastically curtailing the number of hours that manufacturers in India’s premier industrial state went without electricity. The state’s transmission grid was strengthened and Modi promoted the development of 900 megawatts of solar generating capacity. That’s equivalent to the power generated by a large nuclear plant.

These steps and many others fit Modi’s mantra of “less government and more governance,” as well as the prime minister’s deep understanding of the influence of adequate energy production in reviving a flagging economy.

Perhaps the most useful and telling national economic trend that greets Modi as the new prime minister, the one that clearly attracted interest in his candidacy, is the country’s candid assessment of its deteriorated condition. A decade after India’s economy regularly exceeded eight percent annual growth, and the nation was seen globally as the next economic juggernaut, India is slipping badly.

Endemic corruption, impenetrable bureaucracy, suffocating air pollution, vile freshwater supplies, and off the hook population growth make doing business in India a test of courage. Foreign companies have fled by the hundreds.

Just as significant is how India manages its natural resources as a social welfare program that produces startling outcomes. One of the most damaging examples is gifting to grain farmers free water, free electricity to pump water from overtaxed aquifers, and subsidized diesel fuel to run generators that power the pumps when the electricity cuts off. The result is a dangerous and expensive cycle of risk, built into the country’s political infrastructure, that simultaneously produces huge food surpluses that rot in Punjab grain depots, dire electricity shortages that hurt businesses and homeowners, and rising fossil fuel trade deficits.

Indians in every region of the nation, in every trade and profession, at every level of society understand that the social, economic, and ecological chaos that is modern India could hardly get much worse. Prime Minister Modi has a decent chance to fix some of this because he starts his work at the place where the reality of India’s troubled prospects meets the earnest hopes of its talented and determined people, what Modi during the campaign called “Achche Din Aane Wale Hain,” the good times that are ahead.

But Modi needs to help India define what he means by “the good times.” And he’ll need to target a handful of priorities to work on immediately, priorities sorted from the extravagant number of problems that require solutions. One of those priorities should be fixing India’s faltering energy production.

In plain words, India is not producing enough energy to supply its citizens, businesses, and communities. The biggest challenge is in the electricity supply.
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This is India — TII

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Noh Ka Likai Falls, India’s tallest and most beautiful waterfall, pours off a green and forested limestone cliff and plunges in a water-misted shower 330 meters to a blue pool. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHILLONG, India — This beautiful and tidy hill station city in Meghalaya, in Northeast India, is steadily expanding along the ridge tops and steep slopes of the region’s Himalayan foothills. Among the reasons is that few cities in India, and few Indian states for that matter, are as picturesque, as uncrowded, or as clean.

One striking example of Meghalaya’s natural beauty is Noh Ka Likai Falls, India’s tallest and most beautiful waterfall, which pours off a green and forested limestone cliff and plunges in a water-misted shower 330 meters (1,100 feet) onto a gold-colored outcropping of solid rock. White and bubbling, the stream ends its dive in a deep blue pool. Along the entire length of Noh Ka Likai Falls, from the daredevil jump into space, to the galloping turbulence of water rushing to fill the blue bowl, the whole of Earth seems to quiver with beauty that is unsurpassed by anything other than what is found in nature.

Yet this wonder of the world commemorates not the stream that links the sky and the land, not the ribbons of white and splashes of blue. No, this magnificent waterfall is said by Indian folklore and ritual to explore the import of the very darkest impulses of man. The legend that greets visitors on a big metal sign, and explains where the fall’s name originates, encompasses betrayal, jealousy, infanticide, cannibalism, and suicide. I kid you not.

The story is this. A young single mother newly married to a man jealous of his infant stepdaughter tricks his new bride into eating a meal made from the flesh of the baby girl. The mother discovers her daughter’s finger in the meal. Engulfed by disgust and horror hurls she herself to her death at the place where the water plummets from the cliff. (See full legend in picture just below.)

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I explained to my Indian guide that in the United States and other western nations such a magnificent display of nature’s elegance would typically be honored with a name that marks its location, its discoverer, or what it inspires in the human spirit. Ruby Falls in Tennessee. Grand Falls in Arizona. Cumberland Falls in Kentucky. Bridal Veil Fall in California.

Meghalaya is different. Here a great waterfall recounts a monstrous tale of infanticide, cannibalism, and suicide.

TII. This is India.

Generally, toward the end of my travels and frontline reporting in nations outside the U.S., I collect the various and intriguing threads — events or locations or people — that strike me as emblematic of a western journalist’s experience in a different place. They come together in essays that I call TII — This is India. TIM — This is Mongolia. TIC — This is China. TIQ — This is Qatar. The titles are borrowed from a scene in Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio’s great 2006 movie about diamond mining during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Asked, while having a drink in an African watering hole, about a peculiarly confusing trail of events that made no sense, DiCaprio tells his mate: “TIA. This is Africa.”

In that same spirit, here are other points of interest from my latest trip to India.

Driving habits that are apparently reckless, but not really — I’ve encountered interesting taxi and hired-car rides on my journeys around the world. None are as initially hair-raising as they are in India. A year ago, in Punjab, the apparent two-lane highway was most often treated as an unofficial four-lane road. Cars, trucks, and buses, side by side heading east, side by side heading west, careening toward each other, weaving in and out of their lanes, horns blasting. Along the shoulders cows and dogs and goats and kids and adults and bicyclists and oxcarts and horse-drawn wagons trudged in both directions.

To leave the traffic lanes for any reason was to invite serious injuries, or deaths of animals and people. Not to get out of the way of onrushing vehicles coming your way while traveling in the traffic lanes was to invite your own serious injury or death. After a time you just get forced to become accustomed to the pandemonium, or you exist as an emotional wreck.

So it was in mid-January, when I returned for my third trip to India, and realized I’d grown accustomed. I jumped into a cab at Delhi International and swung off into evening rush hour traffic. The driver weaved across lanes, bolted by slower traffic, squeezed through impossibly small openings between diesel buses and bigger diesel trucks. He sped with reckless velocity, all to reach my hotel some five kilometers distance.

At the end, the last half-kilometer, the driver turned left onto a choked boulevard and headed east against three lanes of oncoming traffic. Doing so meant avoiding a two-kilometer roundabout and service road, and more traffic. We even made our way through a 200-person wedding party on foot that was all aflutter with the sounds of drums and trumpets and cymbals and flourescent spotlights. Nobody, not any person in the wedding party, nor any of the oncoming drivers, cared. Not a horn sounded. Not a word of protest was uttered. I arrived at the hotel entrance heading in the wrong direction. I thanked my driver. Tipped him well for his skill. Marveled at my own comfort and ease. And thought — TII. This is India.

Eating and drinking in different places in the same hotel — In Guwahati, a big city in Northeast India and the capital of Assam, I encountered unusual strictures involving food and beer. The hotel where I stayed, in the company of Dhruv Malhotra, a talented Indian photographer, had a fine vegetarian restaurant on the first floor, and a small bar on the second. We ordered dinner and asked for the beer and wine menu. No, we were told. No alcohol is served in the restaurant, only in the bar. But typically the bar doesn’t serve major meals, only snack foods. What to do? We ordered from the restaurant and then went upstairs to the bar. Explaining the situation, we asked whether we could eat our fine vegetarian meal in the bar. No problem, we were told. Dinner will be served straight away. TII. This is India.

India’s Internet is terrible — I hate paying for Internet service as an extra in western hotels. I see it as an affront, a gouging. I almost never stay in hotels in the US or Europe that charge extra for Internet.

I’m not nearly as unwilling in India. As a journalist wedded to the information gathering, communication-enhancing power of the Internet, encountering lousy service or no Web connection at all makes me jittery, like drinking too much coffee at night. India has terrible Internet connections. I still look for free Web privileges in Indian hotels, but I’ll pay handsomely for good Web connections, which are rare. That’s why I can recommend without hesitation the Highwinds Guest House in Shillong, which is reasonably priced, and has comfortable rooms, terrific service, good food, and a very strong, reliable, and free Internet connection. Surf’s up.

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is a beautiful hill station city in Northeast, India. Photo/Keith Schneider
Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is a beautiful hill station city in Northeast, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

India is mesmerized by its mega fauna, its top-of-the-food pyramid wild species — After three trips to India, three trips that take a veteran environmental journalist through the heart of a big nation’s water supply, energy production, and food harvesting infrastructure, it’s not hard to make the case that there’s scarce oversight of India’s natural resources. Except one category. The country’s big beautiful wild cats, elephants, surviving Indian rhinoceroses, and other beasts of the forest.

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Unregulated sand mining along Meghalaya’s river banks turns streams yellow. Photo/Keith Schneider

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Shillong Times and its Courageous Editor, Patricia Mukhim, Gain National Hearing On Coal Mine Safety

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Patricia Mukhim, editor of the Shillong Times. Photo/Dhruv Malhotra

SHILLONG, India — To the best of anyone’s knowledge, and that includes a tribunal of senior jurists who heard testimony here on January 24, 15 men drowned in a coal mine in this state’s mineral-rich Garo Hills on July 6, 2012.

The disaster occurred in one of the thousands of Meghalaya’s dangerous and unregulated coal mines. It wasn’t formally reported for more than a week. The bodies weren’t retrieved. Meghalaya’s safety and health authorities conducted what appears for now to be a rudimentary investigation. For a time, state officials even asserted that because the bodies weren’t recovered the men might have escaped, just as 15 to 20 other men did who were working in the mine at the same time.

These details, and many others about the mortal danger of Meghalaya’s mines, and the egregious levels of mine-related pollution that poison the state’s land and rivers, were discovered by the reporters of the Shillong Times. They were disseminated persistently and broadly by its courageous 60-year-old editor, Patricia Mukhim.

Inside a rathole coal mine south of Shillong, India. Photo/Keith Schneider
Inside a rathole coal mine south of Shillong, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

From an uncluttered office lit with a single bulb, and so deep in the newspaper’s concrete basement that cell phone service is spotty, Mukhim manages an editorial staff of nearly 30 that consistently produces first-rate reporting on Meghalaya’s biggest issues, and that includes the state’s lawless coal mining sector. She’s worked for the paper since 1987, and been its editor since 2008. Her work on human rights, on the state’s dangerous insurgency, and on the sickened environment has generated death threats against Mukhim, and earned her numerous awards, including the Padma Shri Award, one of India’s highest civilian honors.

Mukhim was born and raised in Shillong by her mother, a single woman. Mukhim, divorced, is the mother of five children, two of whom died. Two years ago Northeast Monologues posted a good interview with Mukhim.

Her work has made Mukhim a prominent voice and personality in Northeast India. The region’s industrial development and the changes it has brought to the water, air, and forests stirs her interest. In 1996, for instance, she teamed with the Khasi Students’ Union to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court of India in support of a petition by TN Govindavarman to ban the cutting and export of timber. The Supreme Court upheld the petition and ordered a 10-year ban on timber cutting. The Court also ordered the national Ministry of Environment and Forests, one of India’s premier environmental regulatory agencies, to direct state governments to develop working plans for their forests.

The rank practices in Meghalaya’s coal mining industry also are a focus of Mukhim’s attention. In July 2013, in a frank article about the number of coal mining deaths in Meghalaya, the Shillong Times reported that, in the five months from January to May 2013, 15 more miners died in seven separate accidents. The newspaper reported that almost all of the sector’s tens of thousands of laborers are undocumented workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, and neighboring states in Northeast India. Because there is no record of their presence, no taxes on their wages, no formal knowledge of their names or where they came from, the migrant laborers operate without claim to basic rights of safety, fairness, or justice.

In this dangerous and spellbinding confrontation between 21st century production demands and 19th century working conditions, the miners are losing badly. Lawlessness, already pervasive, is prompting more violence above ground, with rapes and beatings and murders becoming commonplace, the Shillong Times reports. Five miners, for instance, were murdered in 2012 by factions apparently associated with the region’s political insurgents. The motive? Choose any one of a long list of mortal threats. Failure to pay insurgents’ self-imposed transport fees and bribes. Fight for control of the mines. Ripoffs and gambling and plain bad behavior.

It takes three hours of work for two rathole coal miners to produce a cart of coal worth 100 rupees, or less than $2. Photo/Keith Schneider
It takes three hours of work for two rathole coal miners to produce a cart of coal worth 100 rupees, or less than $2. Photo/Keith Schneider

Mukhim, a writer of considerable skill and knowledge, summed up the conditions this way: “The coal laborers, mostly migrants, are silent sufferers as they face the wrath of the militants, as well as the fury of nature,” she wrote last year.

That silence, though, may be approaching its end. Mukhim’s own work on the mine sector — determined and poetic – as well as her staff’s incisive reports, last year attracted the attention of the National Green Tribunal. The Tribunal is a panel of senior jurists formed by a remarkable national statute approved in 2010 to specifically investigate and adjudicate major risks to India’s public health and the environment.

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Torrent of Water and Big Questions Pour From Matchless Peaks of India’s Himalayan Region

North of Rampur, along the Mandakini River in northern India, the 25,000-foot snow peaks of the Himalayan Range reach higher than any of the Earth's mountain summits. Photo/Keith Schneider
North of Rampur, along the Mandakini River in northern India, the 25,000-foot snow peaks of the Himalayan Range reach higher than any of the Earth’s mountain summits. Photo/Keith Schneider

OKUND, UTTARAKHAND, INDIA – We made the crossing at night from Chamoli, reaching this Himalayan foothill town after dark. The innkeeper, anxious for guests in a travel economy that came to a standstill in mid-June, cooked dal and nan bread for dinner and then showed us to a room that was unlit and unheated.

It didn’t matter. Thick blankets kept us warm. And at dawn we awoke to strong black coffee and the sun lighting the 21,000-foot Sumaru summit, turning the rock and snow from pink to orange to white. The lower slopes, terraced by generations, dove to the fast-moving Mandakani River. The current poured over gravel and boulders, the sound of it rising out of the tight valley like a beast’s heavy breathing.

For five long days I traversed this region of the Himalayas in the company of Dhruv Malhotra, a young New Delhi-based photographer, and Vinod, a professional driver raised in the hills. I’d come to understand the consequences of a flood in June that trapped and killed 30,000, maybe 40,000 Hindu pilgrims during days of terror.

Steep mountains. Fast moving water. Active towns are the principle metaphors of the Himalayas. So is danger. This is an unforgiving landscape. On June 16 and June 17 the mountains unleashed such fury that four towns on two rivers — the Mandakini and the Alaknanda – were washed away. Entire sides of mountains slid into rivers, and with them came whole sections of mountain highways. Dozens of one-way-in, one-way-out towns and several larger cities were cut off for weeks, supplied with food and fuel by the Indian army.

I’m back in India for a month, just as I was at this time in 2012. I’m here on assignment for Circle of Blue, and our partner, the Washington-based Wilson Center. Over the last three years we’ve collaborated on our Global Choke Point project to understand how nations are responding to the resource confrontation that now defines so much of our economy and our global condition — the rising demand for energy and food in an era of diminishing freshwater reserves.

Last year in Choke Point: India I reported on India’s cycle of risk involving surplus grain production in western states and rising coal production in the east. This year we want to dig deeper into India’s coal production and consumption cycle, its solar and wind sectors, and its ambitious hydro-electric development program.

It’s the latter that prompted this trip to the Himalayas, where India says it wants to build the bulk of the 292 new hydroelectric power projects that are either under construction or proposed. India already has 176 operating hydro projects that account for a bit less than 20 percent of the country’s electrical generating capacity. There are – or were – 15 operating projects in Uttarakhand before the flood. One was buried under boulders and rubble on the upper Alaknanda. Another was damaged by silt from the flood tide that poured into its powerhouse and fouled generating turbines.

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On Water and Energy, India Is Different

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A 1,350-megawatt coal-fired power plant under construction in Tilda, near Raipur in Chhattisgarh, is one of more than 100 big generating stations recently built or nearing completion across India. Only China has a bigger coal-fired power plant construction program. Photo/Keith Schneider

TRAVERSE CITY — It’s been a couple of weeks since our Circle of Blue team completed its 27-day research trip to India. Our work, a scoping mission to prepare for a comprehensive project in 2013, focused on understanding the contest between energy, food, and water in a nation soon to be the world’s most populous. India also is contending with deeper droughts during a period when it has emerged as one of the planet’s top consumers of water-thirsty energy and grain.

The ground reporting, and photography by J. Carl Ganter and Aubrey Parker, took shape in three phases helped considerably by the geography of India’s policy making, farm productivity, and energy development. We spent the first week reporting in Delhi, where we talked with top government and NGO authorities on energy, water, and the farm sector. We spent more than a week touring farms and food processing mills and interviewing farm, energy, and water sector authorities in Punjab and Haryana in northern India, two of the country’s prime grain-producing states. Our last week was spent in Chhattisgarh in east-central India, the second largest coal-producing and largest coal-consuming state. There we visited Asia’s largest open pit coal mine, interviewed coal industry executives, and also spent time with entrepreneurs in the electricity supply and new alternative energy sectors.

Circle of Blue is preparing a four-part series that launches in early February to report in text, original photographs, and infographics what we found. The articles explore farm practices, coal production, resource politics and policy in the era of climate change, and a range of solutions that have potential to become mainstream.

India is the third country Circle of Blue has explored for our Choke Point project, which debuted in 2010 with Choke Point: U.S., expanded in 2011 with Choke Point: China, and went global in 2012 with two trips back to China and a third to India.

All of this reporting from places as distant and different as North Dakota and Ohio, Sichuan and Heilongjiang, Punjab and Chhattisgarh yielded a trove of new facts and a globally significant and fresh narrative about the challenges the world faces in supplying sufficient energy to businesses, and enough food to steadily expanding populations.

Of all the places we’ve explored in the last two years, needless to say, but let’s say it straight away, India was different — the most engrossing, the most engulfing, the most engaging.

In the United States, the conflicts over energy, food, and water are largely confined to specific regions of the country – the Southwest, the Atlanta region, the Great Plains. At this point in the U.S., solving the energy-food-water choke points is principally a matter of refining the basic operating, legal, and investment practices in three vital industrial sectors – energy, agriculture, utilities. The contest over resources reflect the need to adjust policy, operating practices, and investments that are in place and have political credibility. That work is underway, helped considerably by a new emphasis on how droughts and excessive heat are damaging harvests and diminishing electrical generation.

In terms of metaphor, the environmental and economic challenges posed by the tightening choke points over energy, food, and water in the U.S. are well recognized buoys carried along by a strong current of economic transition.

In China, though, the energy-food-water choke points are massive waves battering the shores of that nation’s economic security and environmental safety. China is putting to work the full measure of its technology, treasury, human capital, and resource base to develop at a speed and scale never before witnessed on the planet. The nation’s drive to modernize, and expand its middle class, is helped immeasurably by a centralized governing system that excludes opposition, sets huge goals, and executes to achieve them – shifting grain production from dry provinces to wetter ones, expanding coal production 100 million metric tons annually, developing over 100 big hydroelectric projects in sensitive mountain valleys. But the nation groans in response, pounded by the angry waves of water scarcity, desertification and other deep scars on the land, profoundly dangerous pollution, and a towering waste of resources that weaken China’s treasury and test the patience of its people.

In India, the confrontation over rising demand for energy and food, and diminished water resources, is more subtle, like a powerful political and cultural undertow.

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