For reasons best known to itself, the government has turned a blind eye to the appalling paucity of energy accessible by the poorest of the poor in the country. Something of the order of 600 million people - more than half the population - does not buy any form of energy whatsoever. In other words, they don't purchase wood, coal or kerosene but forage for whatever forms of fuel they can get from farms, grazing and forest areas. As many as 400 million have to make do without electricity.

This is something of an anomaly because the government trots out very misleading figures about the proportion of villages that have been brought under the electricity grid. Thus, the Central Electricity Authority under the Power Ministry, citing statistics from the 2001 Census, claims that 82 per cent of all villages in the country have been electrified. While one can quite acknowledge this for Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Haryana and Punjab, it is difficult to accept the same in the case of other states.

The point to note, in short, is that even if a village is brought under the grid, poor villagers can't afford to connect to the nearest electric pole or even purchase light bulbs regularly. And yet, as story after story in the media illustrates, the benefits of providing energy for both lighting and cooking are tremendous. Indeed, it could well be argued that the latter is even more essential than the former and yields an enormous return, in both social and economic terms, on any "investment" in it.

Lighting can prolong the hours one stays awake at nights, enable children to study, provide safety if one has a lantern to use while venturing outside the home, and so on. Cooking energy removes the hazards of inhaling smoke from inefficient chulhas, to which women and small children are particularly vulnerable.

In this context, studies done, among others, by Dr Kirk Smith, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, show that women are exposed every day to carcinogens, equivalent to that from the smoke from several cigarettes. A few decades ago, he conducted research on villages in Gujarat and was among the first to draw global attention to this omnipresent danger.

The average village typically has a large number of farmers with small holdings of around two hectares each. Their farm waste is not very significant and is already being put to use – either directly to burn as fuel, or to serve as fodder or compost. Gathering and putting it to use for the community will require effort and experience.

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Smith cites how in 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed the worldwide evidence and classified household biomass fuel smoke as a probable human carcinogen, while coal smoke was classified as a proven human carcinogen. He interpreted the findings to mean that smoke from biomass - leaf litter, straw, farm waste etc. - is only weakly carcinogenic, while most of the hazard evidence was from wood smoke.

Throughout the world, approximately half of all households and 90 per cent of rural households utilize solid fuels for cooking or heating. Is there an alternative then? There is, but the dichotomy between two approaches to providing cleaner energy to poor rural households in the country has been revealed by recent developments. The one currently being proposed is a large-scale, corporate-sponsored solution, while the other, older and almost totally forgotten, is a bottom-up, decentralized initiative. Both have their pros and cons.

Corporate initiatives

Tata Power is working on an engine which will convert farm waste to power in villages. This is a gasifier which converts farm and food waste into gas which in turn is used as a fuel to generate electricity. The company has already been engaged in a corporate social responsibility project in Maharashtra where it created local village expertise, using solar power to light up homes. This project involved organising village entrepreneurs who recharge batteries for lanterns that people possess for a fee. The company calls these "local grid networks." By its very nature, however, the potential is limited, given the cost of the lanterns. At best, it serves as a bridge till such time as a household is connected to the conventional grid.

Now, Tata Power is working symbiotically with an unlikely partner, Tata Motors, on the waste to energy initiative in similar rural set-ups. It is drawing on the latter's experience in developing car engines to use compressed natural gas (CNG), which is a clean fuel. Tata Motors has already carried out technical studies to assess the feasibility of a "producer gas-based" engine in the countryside.

Apparently, this presents several challenges. According to the company, waste gas has low energy content while the engine needs to observe certain parameters for its fuel - its calorific content, tar, dust and particulates. In the past, waste-to-energy plants, only experimented with in cities, have not succeeded because of many problems, but most of all due to the fact that in this country, kitchen waste is far too moist and has too low a combustible value. It is certainly going to present problems for the partners of Tata Motors.

Moreover, the average village typically has a large number of farmers with small holdings of around two hectares each. Their farm waste is not very significant and is already being put to use, either directly to burn as fuel, or to serve as fodder or compost. Gathering and putting it to use for the community will require effort and experience. And that is where Tata Power will lend its expertise.

The company is working on creating a self-sustaining cooperative model in villages, similar to that which it has fostered for its solar lighting initiative. The cooperative will gather, sort and transport the waste to the site of the power plant. It believes that this will also create some employment.

According to the consulting firm KPMG, stand-alone ventures on similar lines were attempted in the past but failed because the waste-to-energy "ecosystem" has not been commercially viable. As has already been pointed out, the amount of waste is insufficient and what is more, will depend on the harvesting seasons of different crops.

Tata Power has already found it difficult, for instance, to source bamboo from villages on the outskirts of Mumbai for a pilot project at its power plant in Trombay in the east-central part of the city. There wasn't enough land available on the fringes of this most populous city for the pilot project. It hopes to provide such power at Rs.4 to 5 per kWh (unit), but it will cost Rs. 1.5 to 2 crores initially to lay the grid.

Nationally, Tata Power claims, this technology can substitute ever-more-expensive fossil fuels used for cooking or lighting, such as diesel or kerosene. The company believes it can generate 3000 MW with this technology, while there is an overall demand for 150,000-160,000 MW in the country. If the company makes even 50 paise to a rupee per unit of power, then 3000 MW translates into a tidy 1000 crores or more in profit.

How effective are they?

One can see this model working on the fringes of cities and towns such as Chandrapur in eastern Maharashtra where there are large power plants, surrounded by forested areas. It has been attempted earlier. In 2007, critics questioned the MoUs signed by the Mumbai-based Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Ltd (IL&FS) with the Mumbai and Delhi municipal corporations to employ Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) technology to produce energy by burning waste. Amiya Kumar Sahu, founder of the National Solid Waste Association of India, which claimed to be an NGO operating in the field of waste disposal, believed this method of garbage disposal spelt money.

According to reports, at the time five organizations were bidding to manage the 7000 tonnes of waste New Delhi generated every day. Five companies were bidding to process 1000 tonnes of the waste. According to the financial details provided by one bidder, the company could earn a revenue of Rs. 21 crore in the first year on an initial investment of Rs. 50 crore.

Was there wealth in waste? On the contrary, these projects came a cropper and vanished from sight very soon. Among other problems, the waste emanates mainly from the kitchen, and the presence of rag pickers in cities here ensures that more combustible plastic is removed. Six years ago - before Indian cities imposed bans on thinner plastic bags - 60 per cent of the plastic was picked before arriving at the dumping site.

The 'other' energy

Contrasted with this corporate model, there is a more decentralized and village-centric alternative. These are biogas plants, where cattle dung can generate gas that can itself be used as fuel for cooking. This is in fact more energy-efficient than producing gas and converting it into electricity. Unfortunately, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, earlier named Non-Conventional Energy Sources, has stopped pushing this form of technology, probably under the impression that it is "backward".

In the sixties and seventies, it was propagated with some enthusiasm. This was on a slower scale than in China which, during its early development years, encouraged the construction of biogas plants which used pig, poultry and even human waste very successfully. But it nevertheless made some inroads in delivering energy at the doorstep of modest rural homes.

The technology is simple and a community or even individual household plant can be constructed and maintained by villagers. It is obviously, therefore, "the power to choose". Having said that, problems persist. Since the ownership of cattle is even more skewed than the ownership of land in the country, it is difficult to get those who have a sufficient number of cattle to share their waste with households who don't in the case of community-sized plants. For that reason, household plants are more manageable but, by that same token, only available to the better-off.

Ultimately, as the recently deceased British science journalist David Dickson once observed in a book, an alternative technology can only work in an alternative society.