Lighting up the subcontinent

New renewable energy schemes in India promise an end to power cuts, but only if they receive interna

It looks more like a home-made space station than the future of Indian energy. Three giant, silver golf balls direct a patchwork of mirrors towards a thick steel cube. Nearby, a white beehive sits at the top of a long, black ramp. Standing next to these futuristic objects is a smartly dressed, smiling man. "They're quite simple, really," he explains. "The parabolic mirrors concentrate the sun's rays to a single point." With a flourish, he places a plank in front of the cube and, in seconds, it begins to smoke. "The beehive is a solar dryer for food or clothing. We've got tamarind in there today, but garlic works just as well."

Father Paul Mariadass runs a renewable energy consultancy in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. His company has recently installed two parabolic mirrors on the roof of the local hospital to sterilise surgical equipment. In a city where power cuts can last a week, reliability is crucial. Father Paul develops his projects in a small workshop that no longer needs the grid for its power. "I can leave the fans on all day and still operate all the heavy machinery except the welder," he says. I ask how he feels during a blackout, when the rest of the city is immersed in darkness. "When that happens, I feel like the most powerful man in Bihar."

Around 400 million people in India - the equivalent of the entire population of the United States - live without access to electricity. This energy poverty has an impact on every aspect of rural life, from road safety and snake­bites to adult literacy and local commerce. With the rapid onset of the tropical dusk, entire communities are forced to down tools; children have to put away their books; and shops must shut before darkness closes in.

A series of government-led power schemes is beginning to have an impact but, in a country of India's size, there will always be areas that are too remote to justify an expensive grid connection. Six hours from Father Paul's workshop lies one such village, Billouiri, which is surrounded by sodden green fields. Half a dozen men sit in the shade of a fragile straw roof, discussing the state elections and spitting volleys of bright-red paan. "We only get four hours now, but we were promised six," complains Sudhir Kumar, a 36-year-old farmer who is the most forthright of the group. "Of course, we're happy that the power plant has come, but we want to watch our televisions for longer."

Caste off

Six months ago, a company called Husk Power Systems arrived in the village with a proposition. For 80 rupees a month (just over £1), the villagers could receive six hours per day of just enough electricity to power two light bulbs and a mobile-phone charger. A few extra rupees allowed them to plug in a television. Several hundred households took up the offer and a small silver plant was built on the edge of the village to convert waste rice husk to a combustible gas that drives a small turbine.

This rapid development has shifted Kumar's priorities. I ask him to name the most significant issue facing his village in the state elections. "Caste," he replies, but then quickly checks himself. "No, irrigation. It used to be caste, but other things are more pressing now." Long-time observers of Bihar's political scene have noticed a big shift in these elections - a move away from the point-scoring of the past towards real discussion of infrastructure and development. The politics of birthright still looms large, but roads, schools and electricity are slowly beginning to take precedence.

For small companies such as Husk Power Systems, India's energy crisis is a tantalising business opportunity. One of its directors, Alok Bhushan, explains: "We understand the dynamics of the rural economy and the mentality of the people. Whatever hasn't been seen, whatever hasn't been heard - it takes time for an individual to perceive it, to understand it. But once it's up and running, people are happy to pay for reliable power."

Since its inception in 2007, the company has built 60 plants in Bihar, powering 125 villages. Bhushan has bold plans to expand across the state and into the rest of India; the company's latest target is for 2,014 plants by 2014.

If there's a catch, it is that Husk Power Systems is something of a one-off. Run by a team with an array of international MBAs, the company has won support from the World Bank, a US venture capital firm and the Shell Foundation. It is now applying for funding through the much-maligned Clean Development Mechanism, a demanding UN process for generating tradable carbon credits. All these applications require time and a detailed understanding of what will satisfy the moneymen in London and New York - an elite skill.

Green light

The priority for the Indian government must be to help other, less savvy companies to benefit from the coming wave of international support. The environment ministers who are meeting in the latest round of UN climate negotiations (COP16) in Cancún, Mexico, are attempting to atone for the disastrous lack of progress at Copenhagen last year. This year's summit, held between 29 November and 10 December, is focusing on finance - specifically, how to generate around $100bn annually to tackle climate change over the next decade.

Part of this money, if it materialises, is expected to provide low-interest loans and microfinance for small energy projects. Right now, the debate is stuck. Rich countries are refusing to commit to a definite figure until developing nations show exactly how the money will be spent.

This diplomatic dance in the UN meeting rooms will have a big impact on clean energy companies around the world. Siddharth Pathak, a policy expert at Greenpeace India, believes his country has a major role to play. "Huge developing economies such as India's are at a crossroads and they need to show the international community that the world has a choice. Down one path lie fossil fuels, outdated technology and high emissions. The other promises a new approach, with innovation in clean energy and a concerted effort to leapfrog the polluting industries of the past. But for this to happen, we need to see courage on both sides. A truly global perspective is the only thing that will break the deadlock."

It can be hard to cut through the jargon of fungible carbon credits and seed-stage funding to see what's at stake in these talks. At the end of our interview, Bhushan describes a recent trip through an area where his rice-husk plants are up and running.

“These villages are being lit up in the darkness and it gives you immense satisfaction. The best part is seeing individuals just doing what they are supposed to do. That is what drives me and the whole team. Kids would otherwise be hurting themselves badly. There have been so many examples of burns and deaths through kerosene; it's highly unsafe. Once you see all that changing, it's a really great feeling."

James Turner is a campaigner for Greenpeace

A COP out? From Kyoto to Cancún

Last December, the world's media watched as the climate summit in Copenhagen collapsed amid diplomatic wrangling and point-scoring. The end product was the Copenhagen Accord, which bound members to little more than "taking note" of the need to limit global temperature increases to 2°C.

With the Kyoto Protocol due to expire in 2012, the Cancún climate summit this month aims to lay the foundations for a binding agreement on carbon emissions that will extend beyond that year. Any deal has to be agreeable to rich and poor nations alike and, most significantly, the US and China, the world's two biggest polluters.

China - which some portray as the main obstacle to a successful deal in Copenhagen - has made positive noises over an agreement in Mexico, but
is expected to comply only if certain conditions are met.

The Copenhagen Accord contained pledges of $30bn for developing countries to fight climate change. Chinese concessions are dependent on this fund switching from pledges to reality.

A new UN plan to tax carbon emissions will be aired for the first time at the summit. Yet the chance of a binding deal is complicated by the US domestic political situation: a Republican-controlled Congress makes it unlikely such legislation will pass.
Duncan Robinson

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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