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In India, alternative energy means a scramble for forest substitutes

Like most other low-income developing countries, India is facing not one but two energy crises, and the second is arguably far more serious than the first.

This, often termed the ''real'' energy crisis, is the rapid disappearance of noncommercial sources of energy, particularly firewood. While estimates of the amount of noncommercial energy consumed in the country are not precise, the most recent ones indicate that India probably burns around 135 million tons of firewood a year.

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Nearly all of this is used by rural people for cooking, and, in the Himalayan belt, for winter heating.

Since the annual regeneration of wood in the country's few remaining forests is not much more than 37 million tons a year, it is obvious that most of the firewood used is obtained by destroying the few remaining forests.

This destructive process is already far advanced. Officially, India still has about 300 million acres of forests. But this figure refers to the land classified as forest lands and managed by the state forest departments. It does not refer to the land actually under forests.

The most optimistic estimates place these at no more than about 115 million acres, or about 15 percent of the land surface of the country. Some more recent estimates are still lower: 11 percent, most of this in the higher Himalayas.

The devastating effects of deforestation on the ecosystem are already obvious. Throughout the country, but particularly in the sub-Himalayan plains, there has been a dramatic increase in the frequency of flash floods. Only three years ago, the entire town of Morvi, in the state of Gujarat, was destroyed by a flash flood that burst a dam farther up the valley. Last year in Rajasthan State , a single deluge caused smaller floods that destroyed more than 400 small irrigation dams in a single day and killed 700 people and tens of thousands of head of cattle.

As more water rushes off the deforested slopes, less of it percolates into the ground. As a result, springs in the Himalayas are running dry and the water table in the sub-Himalayan regions is falling. A United Nations technical panel on biomass energy, set up for the Nairobi Conference on Renewable Energy last year, warned that if the trend continued the whole of South Asia would become a dust bowl by the end of this century.

But long before that happens and people start suffering from a lack of food, they will face a famine of fuel. Several state governments are deeply concerned by the possibility of fuel riots. For as the forests shrink, people are walking farther and farther every day in quest of wood or twigs. As these become unavailable and they turn to cow dung, this once-free gift of nature begins to acquire an economic value. Cattle owners are showing an increasing reluctance to part with the dung. More and more of them are hiring the unemployed and destitute, often widows and orphans, to scoop up what their cattle excrete on the way to and from the grazing fields. The poor are thus being shut out from one of the last remaining free sources of cooking fuel.

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The government's program of encouraging establishment of biogas plants to produce methane and fertilizer from agricultural waste has proved a nonstarter. Until recently only about 1 village in 10 had a plant, and these were largely family-size operations.

Fairly early in the program, planners and sociologists realized that in a property-owning, market-oriented economy, biogas plants would increase the economic value of cow dung and step up the process described earlier, by which it is being denied to the rural poor. As a result, the central and state governments took a tacit decision not to push ahead too fast. Today most state governments are content to offer subsidies of up to 75 percent of the capital cost to those who build biogas plants, but are doing little else to make them popular.

In the last few years, the focus of government endeavor has shifted to ''social forestry.'' This is a program to raise mainly fuelwood plantations around every village, to meet the needs of its inhabitants and to be sold to contractors supplying firewood to the towns. The planners have correctly surmised that if this is taken up on a large enough scale the pressure on the forests will ease and they will have a chance to regenerate themselves naturally.

The social forestry program started 10 years ago in Gujarat, when the state government persuaded village councils to plant quick- growing trees like eucalyptus, acacia, and casuarina on common lands. The success of the project attracted the attention not only of the central government but also of the World Bank, which is now aiding the program.

One last project in the field of alternative energy deserves special mention because of the promise it holds out for the cities. This is a plan to gasify the garbage of Bombay to provide producer gas and charcoal. While the former is to be synthesized into either ammonia (for fertilizers) or methanol for the petrochemicals industry, the latter will meet a large part of the cooking fuel needs of the poor, and thereby stop the flow of firewood from the rural areas to the towns.

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