Changing the perception of development in India

ET Infra, November 02, 2022

Capital-intensive green-field projects with long-term gestation periods provide sustained careers and incomes for employees and revenue opportunities for ancillary industries, says Balvinder Kumar Former mines secretary.

Often, conclusions are drawn prematurely by a handful of people through misleading information and misconceptions.

It is a growing dilemma with no easy solutions. Those rooting for higher growth and employment, demanding electric cars and buses, round-the-clock power supply, mobile phones and countless gadgets to order online, are most unwilling to allow the setting up of large industries in the country. Even still the public perception remains that the presence of chimneys is a sure indicator of air pollution, to extract methane gas from coal beds would lead to crop failure in neighbouring areas, and setting up a bottling plant may adversely affect groundwater.

Often, these conclusions are drawn prematurely by a minority. Yet, their voices get heard more often by constant propaganda, amplifying negative issues and instilling the fear of adverse consequences. Since negative news makes the front page, such misconceptions are amplified by the section of media with unfailing regularity.

However, in many cases, these assumptions based on misconceptions, and false information have resulted in the wasting of years in resolving such disputes, mostly in courts. A glaring example of such cases is the Narmada Valley project, which took many decades to come into existence.

Today, the completed project has transformed agriculture by enabling water supply to arid areas, villagers who have been resettled; their land parcels have appreciated many times in value. As a result, new economic opportunities have arisen in the region.

Undoubtedly, whenever and wherever a big industry comes up in the core sector, it positively impacts nearby areas. Apart from generating employment opportunities, it also creates self-sufficiency or reduces reliance on overseas sources.

Capital-intensive green-field projects with long-term gestation periods provide sustained careers and incomes for employees and revenue opportunities for ancillary industries. It also sustains vendors who offer raw materials for manufacturing their goods and, in turn, provide inputs for other industries. For instance, fly ash from thermal plants is used as construction material in low-cost homes and even in highways.

On the other hand, the industries considered as non-polluting, such as computer and cloud-based services such as BPOs, KPOs, GICs, and other centres of excellence, may not be, comparatively speaking, that promising.

After all, 1,000 terminals in a multi-storied building in the IT corridor with screens that glow 24X7 emit a high quantum of carbon on the power consumption. According to published data, a computer for eight hours a day emits 175 kg of CO2 per year, and a two-wheeler emits 102 kg of CO2 per year. Similarly, a food-delivery service with more than 3,000 riders adds to pollution, making it difficult for the country to achieve a net zero emission by 2070.

Does this mean that all these industrial activities should be shut down for cleaner air and a greener city? The answer is a resounding “no”. Hence, if the setting up of industries results in significant growth in income of the people and overall development of the community with a manageable impact on society, giving them the green light will be a good call.

In most cases, projects that were either scrapped at the blueprint stage or started inordinately late had resulted in a substantial increase in project outlay or were even shut down within a short span of commencement showed that the people opposing them had shelved the projects ignoring the ‘greater good’ for the society at large. And, even in some cases, the projects were brought to a hard stop after several years of operation.

For example, Sterlite Copper, a smelter in operation for more than 20 years in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, was brought to standstill in the year 2018 following allegations of air pollution and groundwater contamination. A recent Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) International study estimates the resultant loss to the nation’s economy to be around Rs.14,749 crores.

Similarly, the setting up of the Tata Nano plant in Singur, West Bengal, and its subsequent dismantling has been well documented. Years later, the less-known irony is the invitation to the same Tata Group to re-enter and invest in that State. The proposal to set up the Coca-Cola plant at Erode, Tamil Nadu, was shelved around 2015.

In one another case, Vedanta Resources, which owns Sterlite Copper, had earlier considered Maharashtra, Telangana, and Karnataka to set up its semiconductor plant at an outlay of Rs. 1,54,000 crores. Still, the final decision has been taken in favour of Gujarat, presumably due to its investor-friendly climate.

As we can observe in the case of the Vedanta-Foxconn project, such a massive investment can change a state’s national standing and economy. When a project moves away, the sufferers are the people whose existence was sought to be protected by activists.

There are similarly other cases, where the economically viable and promising projects were shelved or shut down due to misinformation and misplaced perceptions among a small section of society. The decisions were not based on merit, but driven by other extraneous considerations.

In democratic countries like India, they can succeed through courts and other pressure groups. This has a huge cost. Unfortunately, the public at large hasn’t been able to take up these issues so far collectively in support of such large projects. Let’s hope, in coming times, rationality would prevail and economically viable projects would not, in public interest, be allowed to be stalled by a small percent of people. The perception of development needs to be changed.

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