My column in today’s DNA
Way back in 1964, media theorist and technological determinist Marshall McLuhan stated, “The medium is the message”, a line that has been quoted extensively. McLuhan’s work looked at the impact of communication and communications technology on culture. The most famous example that McLuhan used to explain his theory was the ordinary light bulb. He explained it by saying that the light bulb is pure information. It is a medium without a message. “Whether the light is used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the ‘content’ of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the fact that ‘the medium is the message’,” he argued.
The presence of the light bulb, ie, the presence of electricity, changes the world as we know it. It enables a whole host of activities that were not even thought of when there was no electricity. To appreciate this better, we need to imagine a world without electricity: all work done in daylight hours because there is no power to light bulbs; no fans, no computers, no heavy industries; jobs restricted to agrarian, manufacturing to basics. Services — such as banking, insurance, health care — would be restricted to the elite, education would be the purview of a few. A world without electricity is a world that is deeply unequal in nature, a world in which people are mainly restricted to traditional professions; a world that existed 100 years ago.
Electricity is more than the delivery of energy. Its very presence changes the way in which we live, work, and do business. Its availability liberates people from feudal social structures. It is hardly surprising that nations and societies whose citizens have access to energy on a continuous basis are far more egalitarian than nations and societies that don’t. The lack of electricity is associated with societies and regions with deprivation, poverty, feudalism, crimes against women, and social unrest.
The presence of electricity, on the other hand, is empowering people and opens up choice and opportunity in the way they conduct their lives. A country or a state that looks for energy security for its people is one that cares about the well-being of its citizens. On the other hand, a country or a state that does not prioritise energy access for all is failing miserably in its duties by its citizens.
It is estimated that 1.5 billion people across the world, or almost a fifth of its population, have absolutely no access to electricity. Over 400 million people have never experienced electricity. When the sun sets, their world goes dark, and stays that way till the sun rises again.
However, the demand for electricity has to be balanced with methods of generating it in a manner that is cost effective and sustainable. In the last two decades, the world has been slowly looking at renewable energy — solar, wind, tidal waves, energy sources that are replenished by nature — as a method of ensuring energy security for the vast majority of its citizens.
This year, 2012, has been declared by the UN General Assembly as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Governments, private enterprise and NGOs such as Greenpeace are working at the grassroots to help bring electricity off the main grids, purely at the local level. Called the Smart Energy Access strategy, it allows the transition “from rural electrification to universal electrification by making use of the versatility of micro grids. That is, its functionality as an off-grid system, the ability to incorporate multiple generation sources, adapt to demand growth, and to be integrated with the central grid, while retaining the ability to separate and operate as an island grid if needed.”
Large power plants are vital to power heavy industry and large-scale growth. Dhule, for example, is the home for the world’s largest consolidated solar power project, Jaitapur for the largest nuclear plant. Neither will be ready this year, or even the next. Both will take time. Providing electricity through a central grid may be the ideal method of doing so, but in a world of growing aspirations it may be impossible to get people to wait so long.
Development is not possible without energy. And sustainable development is not possible without sustainable energy. India needs to empower its people by providing energy access to all — cheap, clean energy that powers homes, businesses, and schools. An energy policy that puts the household at its core and builds up from the needs of the household may be the way ahead.