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Book Review: India's Pursuit of Energy Security

12 Aug 2020
Reviewed by David Costello
Book cover of India's Pursuit Of Energy Security by Ashok Sharma

Energy security has been a fraught issue in Australia for more than a decade. But if you want to see what a real crisis looks like, consider India.

Bitter disputes about how to ensure affordable and reliable power while cutting greenhouse gas emissions have produced many political casualties including former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd. This issue has unfolded in a wealthy and resource-rich country. In India, energy demand far outstrips supply, and one-quarter of the 1.2 billion population has insufficient access to electricity.

The situation there is examined thoroughly by Ashok Sharma in his latest book, India’s Pursuit of Energy Security: Domestic Measures, Foreign Policy and Geopolitics. The book paints a big and complex picture, and Sharma succeeds in explaining succinctly the many factors involved.

The central problem is that while India’s energy demand is soaring, its resources are limited. The gap between demand and supply threatens the economic growth rates needed to eradicate poverty and meet social and economic development goals. The country is heavily reliant on imported oil and gas. While nuclear energy could be a key source of power by mid-century, it now only provides three percent of the energy mix.  Heavy investment in renewables has led this sector to provide around one-fifth of the installed grid-power capacity, and India has committed to doubling this in the next decade. But, Sharma argues, this is unlikely to meet the energy demand, which is set to triple by 2040.

India is the third largest coal producer in the world, but there are problems here too, with a scarcity of coking coal for steel production. In addition, much of the thermal coal mined is of low quality and unsuitable for new generation power stations.

Readers with concerns about global warming and the coal-versus-renewables debate may be disheartened by Sharma’s analysis and conclusions. The starting point is that coal currently provides 55 percent of India’s energy needs, and the push for renewables is commendable. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has committed to a target of 40 percent of power generated from non-fossil fuels by 2030. But Sharma argues that the capacity for renewables to meet the surging demand is overestimated. Coal, he writes, is “indispensable” for India’s electricity needs and will be for decades to come. Likewise, the government’s plan to phase out coal imports is “over-optimistic and unrealistic.”

The book is carefully structured with a detailed preface outlining the content of chapters. Some might be surprised to find a heavy emphasis on India’s troubled relations with China, but this section is especially interesting and somewhat worrying too.

Beijing and New Delhi view each other with a high degree of mistrust, a situation compounded by their ongoing border dispute which recently erupted into clashes and left up to 20 Indian soldiers dead. Sharma details China’s numerous strategies to contain India, which include the Belt and Road Initiative, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the “String of Pearls” network of commercial and military facilities stretching along shipping lanes from the Chinese mainland to the Horn of Africa. India has responded with a “Look East” policy, which has seen it cultivate close relations with Southeast Asian nations.

The author explains how intense competition between China and India for energy sources in Russia, Latin American countries, and Africa is further heightening tensions. In many cases, Chinese players “have been outbidding Indian state-owned and private companies by discounts and exaggerated payment.” In turn, Beijing is alarmed by New Delhi’s developing relations with Vietnam and its oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. Sharma concludes that India-China energy geopolitics have not yet led to direct or indirect conflict, “but both remain vulnerable.”

There is no doubt that the rise of India and China will shape the strategic and economic future of our Indo-Pacific region, and that their search for resources and energy security will be a key driver of outcomes. Those who want a detailed picture of where things are heading will find this book rewarding.

David Costello was Foreign Editor of The Courier-Mail, Brisbane from 1994 to 2012. He is currently the Secretary of AIIA Queensland.

This is a review of India’s Pursuit of Energy Security: Domestic Measures, Foreign Policy and Geopolitics by Ashok Sharma (Sage Publishing 2020) ISBN: 9789353285395

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.