India’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission is touted as the country’s most ambitious attempt to switch to a more sustainable path of development. This mission is one of the world’s largest publicly funded renewable energy programs and aims to generate 22,000 MW of solar power by 2022. The National Solar Mission also strives to reduce the cost of solar energy and promote the manufacturing of solar technology in India by encouraging transparency and competition in the sector.
In order to achieve these goals, the first phase of the mission, which aims to commission 1000MW of grid-connected solar power projects by 2013, set a limit on the number of projects that could be alloted to a single company, in order to allow a greater number of companies to participate in the scheme. However, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a non-government environmental agency, has announced that they have discovered a case of shocking corruption where one major private power company acquired much more stake than legally allowed.
The CSE reports that this company was awarded nine of the projects, and a quarter of the MW allocation to be derived from solar radiation by floating front companies to evade government regulations. While the company’s name only appears in two projects, the CSE alleges that it owns a 99% share in seven other companies that were awarded projects. The CSE also notes that the company in question is assured revenues of Rs 13,000 crore over the next 25 years through consumer subsidies.
The story of how the CSE discovered this suspected rampant corruption would be comical, if it were not so serious. The CSE's suspicions were aroused when it noted that some of the winners of the auction process were unknown companies. Additionally, the NTPC Vidyut Vapar Limited (NVVN), the state owned enterprise responsible for contracting, buying, and selling of solar power, seemed strangely secretive about disclosing information regarding the winners of the auction. The NVVN neglected to mention the background information, contact details, addresses of companies, or even the winning bid amounts when they published the list of companies awarded the projects. The body seems to have had good reason to do so, as after undertaking an extensive investigation, the CSE discovered that some of the companies that won the bid had no previous experience in the solar power industry. The investigators were further taken aback when they realized that nine of the winners shifted their location to the same place once they won the bid and that seven of the winners had won the bid by bidding at a price with a negligible 5 paise difference.
It also appears as though the private power company that that the CSE claims owns these companies did not try very hard to cover its tracks, as the CSE went on to uncover that the detailed project reports of these companies were almost identical. In fact, as one of the investigators points out, even the corrections made to the report were in the same handwriting. And yet, representatives of the power company have stated that they strongly object to the CSE’s allegations.
The NVVN’s role in covering up this scandalous trail is almost as damning as the evidence. The CSE reports that when it attempted to probe the winning projects, the NVVN was reluctant to disclose any information on the companies. After the CSE was forced to resort to filing for their legal right to the information, the government body responded by saying that this information was “not in the public’s interest.” This non-transparency and lack of public accountability in government operations is nearly as shameful as the alleged corruption itself.
This case also begs the question of why the CSE was the only body in the country to detect and investigate this matter. The companies awarded the project were published for all to see, and yet only one agency demanded to know which projects the public were paying for and why. Moreover, from the CSE’s reports, it is clear that the power company in question did not expect to be seriously investigated. But the systemic corruption in the country cannot be tackled in the face of public apathy. This case needs extensive media coverage and further government investigation in order to set a serious example for others.
A vast amount of tax payer money is to be spent on the solar mission in order to subsidize solar power in India. The government must ensure greater transparency in its allocation of projects if it is to convince the public to pay for the country’s much needed renewable energy policies.
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