India, climate change and nuclear power: the denials, delusions and deceptions of Modi

What are the prospects for India if Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes nuclear?
What are the prospects for India if Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes nuclear?
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, has been inconsistent at best about climate change. Now the country has massive nuclear expansion plans, which he claims is a solution. The apparent desire to appease energy companies and the violent oppression of nuclear opponents are a cause for serious concern. KUMAR SUNDARAM investigates
Climate change is the real challenge for millions of Indian people

An intriguing display of extreme opposites can be seen when it comes to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy on climate change. His brazen denial of climate change, during a patronising address to young students in 2014 where he claimed, “it’s not the climate, but we who are changing”, came under heavy criticism.

However, at the Paris Summit in 2015, Modi adopted a strongly assertive posture against the West from a developing world perspective, which understandably resonated with some sections of international civil society, but actually meant garnering more concessions for the home-grown industries.

In his most recent trip to France this June, Modi was seen expressing concern about Trump’s exit from the Paris climate accord and reassuring the new French President of reinforced support from India.

Climate change is the real challenge for millions of Indian people

Doublespeak and confusing signalling

In terms of actual policies back home, the Modi government has been hugely scaling up the renewable sector, but has also made an unwavering support for nuclear power, purportedly as a solution for climate change!

Such doublespeak and confusing signalling is not unusual for the Indian Prime Minister. He has a penchant for employing catchy acronyms as well as making grand, but hollow and often contradictory announcements.

Opponents and even former colleagues have often accused him of reducing every policy decision into headlines-management.

And then there is the unmistakable, signature Modi incongruity, of speaking and acting in exactly opposite ways. Modi was the Chief Minister of the State during the mass-murder of Muslims in Gujarat during 2002. He denied a US visa until he became PM in 2014.

And yet, that did not prevent him from organising and participating in exhibitionistic ‘Sadbhavana’ (goodwill) fasts purportedly to foster communal harmony.

His foreign policy has been a similar show of opposites – organising expat-funded extravaganzas during trips to the US and sharing its dubious Asian strategy of balancing China, but also orchestrating grand shows of public diplomacy with the Chinese President despite making provocative speeches against the neighbouring country in domestic political rallies.

How do we then make sense of India’s course under Modi and what it entails for the climate, and the communities for whom these policies will have far-reaching implications and consequences?

India is one of the few countries in the post-Fukushima world to have massive nuclear expansion plans.

Official claims say this is based on the country’s growing energy requirements and the need to provide electricity to India’s poor population who continue to live in dark.

Nuclear growth in the country

This has also been offered in the country’s pledge submitted to the UNFCC ahead of the COP21, as a justification for the planned expansion of total installed nuclear capacity to 63 Gigawatts by the year 2032.

Dubbing nuclear energy as a solution to climate change has been a key strategy of the Indian government for selling nuclear projects to the public as well as justifying the spree of nuclear agreements with other countries. However, there are three reasons why this is not feasible, desirable and cost-effective.

Firstly, India’s current installed nuclear capacity is just 6780 MWe, based on the assumption that the two VVER reactors recently installed in Koodankulam are actually functioning, when in reality, the plants have had unprecedented incidents of tripping.

Producing 63GWs by 2032 is simply not feasible, because of the terminal crisis facing the global nuclear industry as well as the insurmountable problems associated with Fast Breeder Reactors on which this projection is based.

The DAE itself has drastically lowered its projection and is aiming at generating 14,500 MWe by 2024.  This target seems more feasible given the pace of projects underway.

Secondly, the poor’s access to energy has been a complete farce, to provide moral justification for what is essentially an eco-destructive and anti-poor nuclear expansion.

While India has the largest section of population in the world which is still unelectrified – 20% of all households, much larger in terms of population share – even the claimed electrification is of poor quality.

Merely after connecting a single house or office in a village to an electric wire, it is commonplace for official announcements of electrification to be made ceremoniously.

Therefore, the enormous expansion of capacity in the past three decades has been confined to power-guzzling urban and neoliberal sectors, while rural and poorer pockets within India have received little more than this ornamental facade.

Thirdly, all the major reactor purchase promises that India has made are actually in exchange for the legitimisation of India’s nuclear weapons status under the Indo-US nuclear deal, which summarily ended India’s international isolation since its nuclear tests despite being a non-signatory to the NPT and CTBT.

Nuclear growth in the country has been far from being a result of any prudent assessment of India’s power requirements and a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.

Brutal crackdowns and repression

The power from imported reactors being set up is estimated to be as much as 4 times the tariff from conventional sources and even indigenous reactors. Independent studies have shown that despite massive power production in general, it will hardly reach the rural poor as they simply cannot afford electricity.

In fact, over the past two decades, India’s problem has become exactly the opposite of what it was – India is now a power-surplus country, which is still not very good news.

The reality behind the claims of the miraculous turn-around is actually quite grim – India still does not have all the electricity it needs, but it does have more than the current demand, which is far less than expected, due to the slowing growth-rate and inability of a large section of Indians to pay for electricity.

Hence, providing electricity to the Indian poor is much more than just an engineering and management problem. It has to do with the larger questions of addressing inequity, socio-economic marginalisation, and the burgeoning disenfranchisement due to the country’s obsession with neo-liberal economic growth.

Predictably, this anachronistic and imprudent nuclear dream has met with massive peaceful protests on the ground by the affected communities as well as strong objections from independent experts and even former top policy makers.

Besides Jaitapur where six French-imported EPRs are being installed to set up the world’s largest nuclear power park, massive and intense anti-nuclear protests have arisen in Koodankulam, Mithi Virdi and Kovvada, where Russian and US-Japanese corporations are setting up nuclear power plants.

Local communities in other places like Chutka, Fatehabad and Mahi Banswara have also been agitating against the nuclear projects.

The government has resorted to brutal crackdowns and repression against these consistently peaceful protests.

Needs of common Indian people

More than 8,000 people in Koodankulam are facing fabricated police cases under colonial-era sedition laws and charges of ‘waging war against the Indian state’.

The police have killed, arrested and harassed villagers indiscriminately, including women and children.

They surrounded the Idinthakarai village in 2012, hub of the massive people’s agitation against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant on the southern-tip of India, and disrupted its vital supply lines that deliver goods, including food and milk for children and medicines, to force the village to surrender.

One of the first steps that the new government under Modi took in 2015 was to come up with a "confidential" report by the Intelligence Bureau, naming Greenpeace, the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, and other anti-nuclear and environmentalist organizations, "anti-national”.

So, how serious is Modi government about combating climate change and why is it sticking to nuclear power as an option despite overwhelming evidence that it is not carbon-free and definitely not a solution to climate change?

The answer lies in distorted priorities, which are not determined by the actual needs of common Indian people.

Modi’s overall energy policy is heavily tilted towards power utilities, including the Adani Industries and the Reliance group which have been his key election funders and have seen tremendous rise in their fortunes under the Modi regime, and hence, the expansion of mega power projects – not just nuclear, but also thermal – for the sake of expansion, as these generate profits.

For the people of India, decentralised renewable energy would suit their needs much better.

Hard-earned freedoms

And the obsession with nuclear energy can only be explained by the government’s obligations to the international nuclear lobbies in exchange for legitimation of its nuclear arsenal, potential membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) in the near future, as well as the disproportionate influence that the domestic nuclear lobby wields in India.

Modi government’s rhetoric on climate change at international platforms invokes the ‘interests of India’s poor’, but it is actually about keeping the domestic industrial lobbies free from emission obligations.

On the contrary, combating climate change, without reliance on nuclear power, is the real challenge for hundreds of thousands of common Indian people – a concern that is central to their lives, livelihoods, and safety as well as their hard-earned freedoms and democracy that they cherish.

This Author

Kumar Sundaram is an independent researcher and Editor of the website