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Mr.Ashok Lavasa, Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Ministry of Environment and Forests

07 May 2016

Adoption of new technology to help in utilising coal more efficiently In the last years of the UPA regime, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had become a magnet for controversy and invited charges of arbitrariness in decision-making. It was not surprising that the ministry was seen by the industry as unfriendly. However, under nearly two-year long regime of the NDA, the ministry has seen a dramatic transformation in its image, mainly because of enhanced transparency introduced by it in the handling of cases that come to it. The green ministry is no longer seen as a drag on the economy. Just days before he left Indira Paryavarn Bhawan for the North Block, Ashok Lavasa, Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, took questions from Infraline Plus on issues ranging from challenges facing India in emission reduction to new pollution norms and utilisation of fly ash by coal-based power plants.

India is heavily dependent on coal to meet its power requirement. What gives you confidence that the country will be able to meet its emission reduction commitments while ensuring energy security?

India depends on thermal energy to meet a substantial part of its electricity requirement. Coal constitutes an important component of that. India has a very large reserve of coal, the third largest in the world. Every country has the right to utilise the resources that it is endowed with. Dependence on coal is not peculiar to India. Statistics would show that across the countries including the developed world, there is a large dependence on coal for electricity requirement. In fact, barring a few countries in Europe, dependence on coal has increased. The fact that coal has been the mainstay of energy requirement of the world cannot be denied. So dependence of India on coal has to be seen from that perspective. However, the important question is while utilising coal how do you ensure that its adverse impact on emissions and climate change is contained and managed in a way that it does not further harm the climate. For that India has multiple strategies. The first and foremost strategy is to use new technology, supercritical technology for its upcoming plants. In the Twelfth-five Year Plan, half of the new coal-based capacity being created is going to be supercritical. From Thirteenth Plan onwards that is, 2017 onwards, the government has taken a decision that government supply of coal will be restricted to new units which come up based on supercritical technology. We feel that this adoption of new technology will be less emission- oriented and that will help us in utilising coal in a more efficient way. The second big strategy that we have is of energy efficiency – how do we improve specific energy consumption of various units including thermal plant. Under the National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency, which is one of the missions under the Prime Minister’s Action Plan for Climate Change, thermal power sector is one of the important constituents. In the Perform, Achieve and Trade (PAT) scheme under the National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency, almost 130 thermal plants were targeted and they had to bring down their specific energy consumption. We feel that bringing about improvement in performance of coal-based plants, renovation and modernisation of old plants will help in a big way in reducing emissions from coal-based plants. Moreover, old coal-based capacity is quite insignificant in comparison to new capacity that is coming up based on supercritical technology. The third initiative is to reduce ash content of our coal before it is burnt in power plants. Indian coal is supposed to have a large amount of ash. The Ministry of Coal has now taken up the task of setting up a number of coal washeries at mine sites so that coal that is supplied to power plants has less ash and consequently, their emissions will reduce. On the regulatory side, we have recently improved and made more stringent emission norms for thermal power plants. By adopting new standards, we are at par with global standards in terms of emission -- whether it is carbon, sulphur or Nox.

The environment ministry has recently tightened pollution norms for coal-based power plants. How far it will go towards addressing pollution emanating from coal and lignite-based power plants? How power companies have reacted to that?

We feel that power companies may have some difficulties in adopting these norms but it will in their overall interest and in the overall interest of environment that they gradually move towards these norms. In order to address challenges of the power sector, we have actually made three groups of power plants -- those which were set up before 2003, those which were set up between 2004 and 2016 and those which will be set up after 2017. We have given a calibrated schedule. We are confident our power industry will be able to match these standards.

The level of fly ash utilisation by power plants remains pathetically low at 56 per cent (during first half of 2015-16). What is your plan B to ensure 100 per cent utilisation?

We have recently come out with a new fly ash utilisation policy. The notification has been issued where we have reviewed the 10-year old policy. The essential features of the policy are that within 300 km range of a thermal power plant, it will be mandatory for various types of construction activities – whether it is road, public building or colonies -- to use fly ash. There will have to be mandatory use of bricks made of fly ash. Or fly ash has to be used as compaction material. Every thermal plant will have to host information on availability of fly ash on their website. So only when fly ash is not available with thermal plant, conventional materials can be used. Fly ash is already being used for road construction under the Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana. NHAI and other agencies are also using fly ash for road construction. As technology advances, we hope fly ash utilisation, which is currently at 60 per cent, will go up and eventually reach 100 per cent.

There is so much pressure on land because of development needs. Given that, do you think India will be able to create additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide through forest cover as committed under INDCs?

We have the target of increasing our carbon sink. The way we hope to achieve this again is by a combination of various strategies. The first and foremost is Green India Mission in which we are following landscape approach, identifying huge tracts of land where plantation can be taken up. We hope to cover 15 million ha of land under this scheme. The second is CAMPA -- Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority – scheme under which nearly Rs 40,000 crore has accumulated. We have brought in CAMPA Bill in Parliament. When this bill is passed, a law will be made by which this money will be transferred to states for undertaking compensatory afforestation. This is the biggest financial resource that will be deployed for undertaking afforestation. Other than this, there are ongoing programmes under which we take up afforestation to improve quality of existing forests as well as area. In this regard, another initiative that the government is taking is to look at public-private partnership (PPP) model to utilise energy and resources of the private sector for afforestation. By a combination of all these schemes and measures, we are hopeful that we will be to add to the carbon sink as we have envisaged under our INDC. In fact, it is a matter of great satisfaction that the 2014 report, State of Forests, which was released recently, shows that there is already an increase in forest cover and tree area, which is remarkable considering that we are a developing economy and there is so much pressure on land. What role do you see smart cities playing in the fight against the climate change? See, India is an urbanising society. It is, in fact, urbanising at a rapid pace. One of the projections says that 75 per cent of commercial buildings that will exist in India in 2050 are yet to be constructed. So, we feel that all this construction that is going to take place will require employment of energy-efficiency measures, use of environment-friendly material. This forms an integral part of smart city scheme. Smart cities are supposed to have infrastructure which is energy-efficient, environment-friendly, which addresses the need of waste management, addresses the need of recycling and reuse of resources. So, it is in this sense that smart cities, while they cater to the increasing need of urbanisation, will also undertake quality urbanisation in such a way that pressure on environment will actually be mitigated. For example, in smart cities and new urban infrastructure which is coming up, the environment ministry proposes that we should focus more and more on zero liquid discharge, recycling treated water in urban areas. We are advocating dual piping facilities in new colonies that are coming up. We are advocating that we should have dedicated sewage treatment plant. We are proposing a model of decentralised waste management where citizens share their burden of waste management with urban local bodies.

After Chennai flood disaster, what additional precautions the environment ministry has suggested in urban planning?

See, in urban planning we want to integrate essential features of environment protection and therefore, we want to integrate environment conditions as part of building construction. We have taken up with the Urban Development Ministry and they have included a long chapter on environment conditions in their model building bye-laws. For example, we have stipulated that when new colonies are built, the natural drainage system based on contours of the area should not be disturbed. That is one of the essential features of the new planning. So, if you are able to protect your natural drainage, it will substantially help in meeting any unforeseen flooding which takes place. Apart from that, there is a big focus on providing drainage facility, storm water sewer. And we have also advocated that we should try and create reservoir for harvesting rain water.

Almost every industry complains about slow pace of environment and forest clearances? What are you doing to streamline procedures?

In fact, in terms of environment clearance, the policy which this ministry has followed is greater use of technology, introduced enhanced transparency, simplifying procedure and making them straightforward and predictable. The net result of effort that we have made in last 20 months is that average time taken for environment clearance has come down to 193 days from 599 days before July 2014. Similarly, for forest clearance, the average time taken earlier was 430 days which has come down to 170 days after we introduced the online system. This ministry is story of transformation. In last two years, there is a complete transformation in transparency and image of the ministry and also in the way the ministry handles cases which come to it. (Ashok Lavasa is now Expenditure Secretary, Ministry of Finance)