Our flagship daily news show, where hosts Shashank Bhargava and Snigdha Sharma talk to in-house experts about what is going on and why you need to care about it.
First, Debasish Mishra, Partner at Deloitte India, joins host Shashank Bhargava to talk about India’s current power crisis, and the reasons behind it.
Next, Indian Express’ Anjali Marar explains why large parts of India are facing an extreme rise in temperatures, and the problems this is likely to cause (08:38).
And in the end, Indian Express’ Associate Editor, Shubhajit Roy talks about China finally permitting the return of “some” Indian students who have been stuck in India due to visa and flight restrictions (15:20).
Shashank Bhargava: Hi, I’m Shashank Bhargava, and you’re listening to Three Things The Indian Express news show. In this episode, we talk about why India is facing a severe power crisis right now. We also talk about the unprecedented heat waves in many parts of the country and how these two things are related. And finally, we also discussed China allowing Indian students to come back to the country. We start off by talking about the power crisis. Several states right now are experiencing long power cuts. This includes states like Maharashtra, Punjab, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. And this is because thermal power plants across the country are running critically low on coal, which is a big deal because 70% of India’s power needs are met by coal. In the middle of this crisis. the Delhi government last week also said that this coal shortage could lead to power cuts in important establishments in the capital, such as the Metro trains and hospitals. Now to understand how serious this problem is and what led to it, we speak to Debasish Mishra who is a partner at Deloitte, India, and who leads the energy sector for the company. So Debasish, we understand that a number of states in the country are facing severe power shortages, including Maharashtra, Punjab, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. So what is the reason behind this power shortage?
Debasish Mishra: So, if you notice the states that you mentioned, they are mostly north Indian states, and we are experiencing a very unusual and extreme weather condition in north India, there is an extreme heatwave going on with in certain places in up I believe the temperature cross 47 degrees Celsius. And that’s really a very unusual situation coming in April. Along with that what’s happening is the post COVID the entire economy is bouncing back, you would have seen the GST collection in April. It’s all time record high. So the industry, commerce, residences, agriculture, all segments of electricity consumption is hitting new highs. And last week, the entire electricity system. That’s the reason why crossed 207 gigawatts of peak capacity catered to so that’s again, a new system high. So both these reasons, both in terms of an unusual demand situation due to the weather condition, and the economic revival is adding to research on the demand side.
Shashank Bhargava: Right, both of these factors are making people use electricity a lot more. But we also know that global supply chains have been disrupted. And that has led to an increase in the price of coal. How much has that contributed to this problem.
Debasish Mishra: So coming tothe supply side, I must tell that India is very rich with coal reserves, we almost have 300 years of coal reserves, but we don’t produce adequate amount of coal, because they have a predominant dependence on Coal India that produces almost 80- 85% of the coal consumed in this country. And in 2014, honourable Supreme Court cancelled all the captive coal blocks, which were till then are located. And since that segment, dried up is a huge, you know, supply side constraints. All the government has been in last five years opening up the sector. It had new captive coal location as the Supreme Court’s guidelines is now open for commercial mining also, supply side it hasn’t picked up yet. Because opening a coal mine also take five, seven years, and a segment of our coal consumption is imported, which is around two and a million tonne. And that’s the segment which is affected by the geopolitics, the Ukraine war, and they are the coal which typically Indian power plants consume, which is around 5000 kkl, which is around $60. It was it has gone three times. So even that is becoming constrained in terms of importing too much of coal and making economic sense out of it. So both the demand side is speaking. And on the supply side, we have a constraints and that’s what is the deficit is all about.
Shashank Bhargava: Right. And I remember that last year in October, India had witness power shortages, and that again, was because of a shortage of coal at power plants. Was that due to similar problems as well?
Debasish Mishra: Yes. So what happens is, there are monsoon related disruption in both mining of coal and dispatch of coal. So typically, power plants are advised to accumulate a lot of coal during this pre monsoon period. So that’s what is the scare because this time even during the pre monsoon period, power plants have a hand to mouth existence. So there is only 20-22 million tonnes of coal Right now with the power plants, and there is around 60 million tonnes of coal which is mined and being dispatched from the mines. Ideally, these power plants should be having 35-40 million tonnes by the time monsoon starts if that doesn’t happen, you could be looking at a bigger crisis in the end September October, how it happened last year.
Shashank Bhargava: So this crisis will persist going forward, at least for some time.
Debasish Mishra: Yes, because there will be supply side disruptions during monsoon period, the mines get flooded, there will be less mining activity during peak monsoon. So that happens every year.
Shashank Bhargava: And do you think these power shortages could also lead to disruptions in emergency services and hospitals?
Debasish Mishra: Unlikely it’s not that it is very widespread see, unlike what used to happen when we were kids, when we were growing up, we used to have peak deficit of 15-20% because the system didn’t have capacity in terms of power plant capacity, India has adequate power plant capacity, even the current power plants are running at 70% capacity utilisation. So the constraint here is coal logistics. So once you crack that, I don’t think we will have a situation like what it used to be 15-20 years back when peak deficit is to be, you know, in excess of 10-15%. So it’s not like a situation where I will not scare the public by saying that hospitals will not have electricity. So
Shashank Bhargava: Okay, so then in what way, do you think we can stop this from happening again, or at least significantly reduce the chances of this happening again.
Debasish Mishra: There are more systematic solutions and long term solutions are needed. Government has carried out a lot of reforms on the coal mining side, similarly on the coal infrastructure side lot of infrastructure projects, particularly in Jharkhand, Orissa Chattisgarh, our progress progressing, once those coal, you have an infrastructure in place, hopefully, you will not have this problem three to five years down the line. And this kind of geopolitical situation also is again, you know, these are black swan events, once in a lifetime kind of events where you would have seen all commodities have gone up, otherwise coal as a dirty fail, because the climate, emergency and other kinds of consciousness, there was no ticker for it. But because of the Ukraine crisis, even Europe’s just started burning coal now, but this will again, go back. I mean, once the conflict comes down, then coal will again, be less in use and prices will come down internationally, things will be better. I’m an optimist. So.
Shashank Bhargava: And the other thing is that 70% of India’s power needs are met through coal. So keeping the current crisis in mind to what extent should India be reducing its dependence on coal? And to what extent is it already doing that?
Debasish Mishra: So to put things in context, in 2014, India had around 30 gigawatts of renewable capacity. Right now. If you look at it, we have around 130 gigawatts of renewable capacity and going forward, India has committed NCOP 26. That will have 450 gigawatts of renewable capacity by 2030. So the number that you’re mentioning 70% dependence on coal that will come down to 50% by 2030 50%, will be fossil fuel 50% will be renewable sources. But India given its dependence at this level, both India and China are two countries large economies which can’t do is save a coal since China is also in a similar trajectory. By the time it will be 2045 50. India will wind down and depend on coal less and less and that’s why India has committed to it 2070 Net Zero target as a country.
Shashank Bhargava: And next we talk about the current heatwave, like Debasish mentioned in the previous segment, large parts of India right now are experiencing unprecedented heat conditions in Western Rajasthan and Vidarbha in Maharashtra, for example. Temperatures have remained between 40 and 45 degrees celsius throughout the last two months. And this is really unusual for March and April. In this segment Indian expresses Anjali Marar, who writes on climate and environment for the newspaper joins us to explain why this is happening. So Anjali, to begin with. Could you talk about just the kind of temperatures we are seeing across the country right now.
Anjali Marar: So the temperatures are definitely above 40, over many, many places since March. But it has also gone to 45 and 47, at isolated places, in as early as March and April. So that’s the maximum temperatures India is recording this year.
Shashank Bhargava: And this kind of heat is unusual for this time of the year for many of these places, right?
Anjali Marar: That’s right. So the heat onset with the severity which it had made this year is early for many places in North India, March April are usually the transition months or at least March is the transition month from winter to summers and the temperatures normally don’t go beyond 40 but this year it has been an unprecedented heat over large parts of India early on.
Shashank Bhargava: Yeah, and in fact, the data from the India Meteorological Department even shows that the average maximum temperature over North West and Central India for April this year has been the highest in the past 122 years. So, what is the reason for this unprecedented heat.
Anjali Marar: So, the main reasons are basically there has not been much rainfall activity that usually pre monsoon showers, it is called, they may not be very intense, but intermittent showers here and there does keep a check on the heat. So, that has been completely absent over North India for a very very long period both March and April the rainfall deficiencies were 80% plus. So, there was hardly any rain, which means, you know your land is heated up or it’s already getting heated up plus there need to be some weather systems from time to time which will bring in cloudiness, which will bring in other factors wherein, there is control on the solar heating in the summers. So, those weather systems were also largely absent. So, these are the two main reasons for the past two months where heating has been in excess you can say.
Shashank Bhargava: And now we have entered May do we know how much temperatures are likely to rise.
Anjali Marar: So, May in general or climatologically is the peak month for summers in India in over Rajastan or places like Gujarat West up West MP temperatures do go around 45 or above which is normal, but this year, it can remain like how it was in April and can continue. I will not be able to say by how much or what range it can but it can continue as it is today. There is no much respite expected, especially what Northwest and central India regions for me. Whereas, thankfully the other rest of the country, you know, southern peninsula east or extreme north there, the May is supposed to be less hot in comparison to central and west India.
Shashank Bhargava: And Anjali, what are the biggest concerns going forward? Like What problems are we likely to experience because of this temperature rise?
Anjali Marar: So I’ll start with an example. Odessa has announced school closures in the last week of April, just because of the heat wave schools have barely opened after the COVID waves. And now they’ve announced closure of schools because of heat waves. So you can imagine the impact on human health if temperatures go to 45 or persist for very long periods on human health. Another example I can give is Maharashtra this year, there have been 21 heatstroke related deaths. And whereas Maharashtra’s Vidarbha, only one section of Maharashtra was really affected by heatwave. So human health, in a broad perspective is widely dependent or would be facing the maximum impact if people are exposed to such temperatures, we must also realise that there are a lot of pre monsoon activities, outdoor activities in terms of repairs in terms of construction that go on. So health of those workers health of people whose jobs require them to be outside, you know, it’d be a big risk. Similarly, elderly people will not be able to bear such temperatures, human health, I would say is One. Two would be strain on our resources like power water, there’ll be higher demand during these summer months when temperatures go around this range, and there’ll be strain on our existing resources. We’re already seeing power demand at its highest this year in how there is shortage and how so many states are facing power cuts even up to eight hours in the sun or the moon for that matter. And lastly, I would also say that forest fires or excessive heat could trigger some other events, like for example, forest fires when you have arid land, very hot atmosphere, then naturally, the post winter biomass, which is there in the forest areas or in the fields can ignite and can lead to forest fires.
Shashank Bhargava: Yeah, The drier the forest, the more likely it will catch a big fire. Right? Correct. It’s
Anjali Marar: Correct. It’s more vulnerable to catch fire. Yes, so the effects of multi fold not just for humans, for animals for our resources. So heat over this prolonged period or such temperature ranges is definitely not very good.
Shashank Bhargava: And now experts warn us that because of climate change and because of global warming, this problem of heat waves is only going to get worse right?
Anjali Marar: True. So several climate reports or climate experts be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or even state level India in the Ministry of Earth Sciences have warned that such extreme temperatures or extreme events are going to be a more common phenomenon mainly driven by climate change, whether we can link the current heat waves in over India. Similarly, Pakistan is also reeling under heat wave to climate change or not. Maybe it’s too early to comment on it. But yes, we can say that these may be early signs or these may be the or alarm bells for the climate change related events that are awaiting for us in the near future. And which could be turning to a norm in the coming years or coming decades here on not just over South Asia but world over climate change effects or climate change is giving a signature of these kinds through these extreme events.
Shashank Bhargava: And in the end, we talk about China. Over the years 1000s of students from India have been going to China for higher education, but after the pandemic, a lot of them had to return home. And China since then has not been allowing them to go back. The last week on Friday, Beijing announced that it will now permit the return of some Indian students who have been stuck in India due to visa and flight restrictions. Indian Express’s Associate Editor Shubhajit Roy, who reports on matters of Foreign Affairs tells us more about it. So, Shubhajit, why is it that China till now had not been allowing students from India to return to the country?
Shubhajit Roy: Yes, Shashank if you remember the first case in India of COVID, in early 2020 from students who returned from China as the COVID restrictions started being imposed in Wuhan province. So those students had come back and then thereafter as COVID restrictions sort of were tightened, and over the period of time, a lot of Indian students had come back, it’s estimated that there are about 23,000 Indian students who are studying in China, and majority of them study medicine. So they had returned to India, because obviously, you know, there were restrictions there and all of that, but they have not been able to return since then, because of those restrictions. Also, international travel was stopped between India and other countries. And China had also followed the zero COVID policy for the last couple of years. Right now, we don’t know what’s the exact number, but it will be about 10,000, who are still in India and wanting to return to China to pursue their academic programme, especially for studying medicine, you can’t just do your course online, you have to have in person classes or experience or practicals. So for that they wanted to return. But this has been sort of an issue between India and China, Indian authorities have been taking it up with the Chinese authorities to allow these Indian students to go back to China and pursue their studies. But that wasn’t happening. So now the Chinese foreign ministry has said that some Indian students wouldn’t be allowed to come back now. They will have to work out the modalities. And the Indian Embassy now has to prepare a list of students who want to go back to China to pursue their academic programme.
Shashank Bhargava: Right. And this issue was also raised by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Last month, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was visiting India. And Wang Yi had assured him that he would speak to the relevant authorities. But you know, considering the China has been so restrictive about allowing students to return, could you talk about the kind of COVID restrictions that are still in place there.
Shubhajit Roy: So China has started allowing return of students from South countries like Pakistan, Thailand, Solomon Islands, and recently from Sri Lanka. So they have been allowing some students to come back not all because as you know, China is right now going through, again, outbreak of the pandemic of COVID. There have been restrictions in Shanghai for movement. Also, China has been very restrictive in its policy when it identifies a COVID-19 infected case. So it usually locks down entire neighbourhoods, sometimes villages, sometimes entire cities, and any international traveller going to China has to call in China and sell for herself for at least three weeks. I know of Indian diplomats or Indian journalists or Indian business people who had to go to China for urgent work. And they’ve had to quarantine themselves for three weeks in our hotel and an institutional quarantine system where only after that they could go ahead and meet people or do their official work or do their business. So I guess that’s the reason because of their restrictive approach. They have not been lying this route, but now because they have allowed some countries they have indicated a positive approach towards the Indian students as well.
Shashank Bhargava: And what has been the reaction of the students to this news?
Shubhajit Roy: Yeah, students obviously I’ve been thrilled you know, the Indian Embassy put out a notice saying that register yourself with the Indian Embassy on particular Google form, they circulated a link latest by eighth of May. And the students have been saying that this is the best news they’ve received. They said that they have been stuck in India for the last two years, ever since they came back from there. And they have to complete their course they have to appear for the exams. And these are students from all across. Some are from Jaipur or Delhi or other parts of the country. So I guess it’s a sense of relief for all these students and their families who would want the children to complete the programme.
Shashank Bhargava: You’re listening to Three Things by the Indian Express. Today’s show was written and produced by me Shashank Bhargava and was edited and mixed by Suresh Pawar. If you like the show, then do subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. You can also recommend the show because someone you think will like it. Share it with a friend or someone in your family. It’s the best way for people to get to know about us. You can tweet us at @Expresspodcasts and write to us at podcasts@Indianexpress.com