The government of Maharashtra plans to allow 43 new private and public thermal power plants in Vidarbha, a region that’s suffered years of neglect and is home to thousands of distressed, suicidal farmers. Is the government justified in sacrificing Vidarbha to the power needs of the rest of the state/country?
When the regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada were integrated into the erstwhile state of Bombay, Article 371 (2) was inserted into the Indian Constitution by the 7th Amendment of 1956. This was to ensure that the people of the two regions were properly integrated. For this to happen, the governor of the state was given special responsibilities through a presidential order for the establishment of development boards, allocation of funds for development, etc. In 1994, statutory development boards were constituted for the regions of Vidarbha, Marathwada and the rest of Maharashtra.
Over the past 15 years, the Vidarbha Statutory Development Board (VSDB) has endeavoured to accelerate development in the region. It has highlighted poor irrigation facilities, shortage of electric irrigation pumps and disparities in electric supply, while using its meagre resources to build infrastructure. But not much has changed. A 2006 Planning Commission fact-finding mission investigating rural distress in Vidarbha reported “astounding evidence of years of continued neglect of a region and its people”.
It comes as no surprise therefore that the VDSB’s ‘Report on Need of Region-wise Equitable Distribution of Electricity’ did not make news in Vidarbha as it said nothing new. But, while focusing on disparities in electricity distribution, it does reveal government plans to permit 43 new private and public thermal power plants in Vidarbha.
The rationale behind coal-fired thermal power plants
The region of Vidarbha, comprising Nagpur and Amravati divisions, constitutes 31.6% of Maharashtra, or approximately 97,321 sq km. Eleven districts fall under it -- Amravati, Akola, Bhandara, Buldana, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Gondia, Nagpur, Wardha, Washim and Yavatmal. The 2001 census puts Vidarbha’s population at 20,630,987.
The government’s attempt to develop Vidarbha into a power hub has some sound reasoning behind it. Being centrally located, power can easily be distributed across the country from here. And the absence of large industry and cities implies minimal demand for land, water, clean air, etc. It is assumed, of course, that the farmers here, being in a state of constant distress, would be only too eager to dispose of their land.
Growing energy requirements add to the ‘suitable conditions’. The Central Electricity Authority’s National Electricity Plan has assessed the capacity addition for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan to be 78,530 MW, of which 58,597 MW will be through coal-fired thermal generation. A capacity addition of 82,000 MW is forecast for the Twelfth Plan, to be partially met by 40,000 MW thermal generation. In 2009, the power secretary stated that “the future of the power sector will be largely dependent on coal supplies, at least for the next 15-20 years”. It’s obvious that the state government is eyeing revenue-generating opportunities in its plan to set up thermal power plants in Vidarbha.
Capitalising on the vacuum created by underdevelopment, the government is promoting dirty technology in the guise of development, reminiscent of international business using lax labour and environmental laws to push dirty technology in third world countries.
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.