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Tuesday, 01 January 2013 00:00
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From Aadhar to radiant cooling, piezoelectricity and beema bamboo, India takes many small ‘steps’

ONGC's work to get Bangladesh to agree to allow it to use internal rivers to ferry 2 turbines of 350 tonnes each was another big achievement last year --we've now moved grain to the north east through Bangladesh


A gas-based power plant, even if in Tripura, is hardly the thing of headlines, yet in the year gone by, it symbolised what a PSU can do, and how this can change the shape of India’s neighbourhood were the government to follow through. In the mid-2000s, ONGC decided to set up gas-powered turbines in Tripura to utilise the gas production it had capped there as it could find no way to utilise it. When 11 company officials went to scout the route to send the turbines, it found the route too tough to negotiate, and with not enough room for 24-metre trailers which were to carry the 350 tonne turbines to turn—they needed a 12-metre turning radius – even after getting the government to sanction and then widen existing roads. The Indian Waterway Transport Treaty (IWTT) with Bangladesh offered a possible way out, but the port it allowed was of no help—Ashuganj was a better bet, but India had been trying to get this into the treaty for decades, to no avail.

ONGC hired a shipping company in Bangladesh to do some local liasoning, its official in charge of the Tripura project—RK Madan—built a rapport with Sheikh Hasina’s advisors and managed to get Ashuganj incorporated in the IWTT and then built 48 km of road in Bangladesh from Ashuganj to India after getting the government to accord permissions at a speed that would shame India—the turbines got transported last year and electricity production started in October. India hasn’t quite followed through on its commitment to develop Ashuganj but has nonetheless managed to transport foodgrain for the northeast using this far more efficient means of transport. India’s northeast has become a lot more accessible, and because of a PSU.

India’s biggest “PSU” achievement, as it were, of course is the Aadhar-based payments system that is finally in place. The government may or may not finally use Aadhar to tackle the really big leakages in food subsidies—indeed, it is planning the mother of all PDS systems, the Food Security Bill, despite a 40-45% leakage in the system—but our focus here is on how Aadhar has pushed the envelope when it comes to technological innovations which, needless to say, can be used elsewhere. Given the shortage of space, and the author’s cognitive limits, the explanation will have to be more than a bit telegraphic.

First, few in the world do online authentication of IDs using biometrics, certainly none in the kind of scale we’re talking of here, a system which can potentially do this for 120 crore citizens; later in the year, Aadhar will be doing this using iris scans, not just fingerprints. Its database, at 24 crore, is already double that of the US’s VISIT. Two, the system is completely open-system, so any front-end machine—a Nokia phone or a Micromax one—can be used for capturing and transmitting biometrics from various points of purchase. Given the system needed to have the capacity to process 1 million Aadhar cards a day, to ensure there were no duplicate cards being issued, Aadhar works of a model that has three de-duplication engines working in parallel to take up the load—in other words, that’s a stunning and very useful technological solution that can be used elsewhere and, once again, makes the system vendor-agnostic since de-duplication machines being used come from different vendors. And just 200 Aadhar employees remotely supervise the work of 50,000 active card enrollers across the country on an online basis—think of the impact of using this kind of system for monitoring various health and other public programmes.

In 2011, Infosys’s Rohan Parikh changed the energy consumption paradigm with his ‘radiant cooling’ (http://goo.gl/CGi2e) and ‘spectrally selective glass’ to cut energy usage in his half of the Hyderabad campus by 30%. Last year, he took this several steps forward and, more important, Infosys is acting as an incubation centre, taking many innovative solutions from start-ups and trying to see how these can be, if at all, scaled up to commercially viable models.

Given that cooling through ‘radiation’—which involves transporting heat over water instead of air like we do at present—is 3,200 times more efficient was 2011’s big learning for Infosys, it plans to scale up the Hyderabad experiment in a big way. Hyderabad had 1 lakh square feet of campus covered by radiant cooling, the plan is to now do the same over 2 million square feet. While the water pipes had to be embedded in the ceiling in Hyderabad, they’re now being put into the false ceiling, making retrofitting of existing buildings that much easier. Given the way Infosys expands—4 million square feet of additional office space each year—keep in mind any innovation Infosys does is likely to spill over to lots more firms as the construction/refrigeration companies working with Infosys take their learning to other construction sites they’re working on.

If the revolutionary change in cooling wasn’t enough, another 2012 breakthrough was being able to monitor and control cooling/heating systems remotely. You can have the world’s most efficient solar electricity system, but if the panels aren’t changing direction in keeping with the sun’s rays, how does that help; ditto for efficient cooling systems that don’t slow down when the building has less people. So, Infosys has sensors in various campuses giving a remote centre in Bangalore details of temperature, humidity, weather patterns and the number of people in a building—three campuses, in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram were remotely controlled out of Bangalore in 2012, ensuring the cooling system is always operating at peak efficiency. Wireless switches that control lights—imagine putting up lights in a room that require no wiring!—run on what’s called piezoelectricity. So, a bit like a winding watch, the light switch generates its own power through the motion that’s set off each time the switch is flipped on and off—piezoelectricity ensures the switches don’t need batteries that need replacing from time to time. In Infosys’s case, all of this means it will achieve its 50% per capita energy reduction target in 8 years instead of 10. Imagine what it can do for the country.

While enough has been written in the media about Sustainable Technologies & Environment Projects’ work on converting waste to fuel—Parikh describes his shredding tyres and plastic bags to get gas as a big abracadabra moment in the STEPS lab—Infosys is working on commercial level scaling up. Another experiment being scaled up involves ‘beema’ bamboo which, Parikh’s calculations show, can power much of village India and at a really small cost. Beema bamboo, it appears, sequesters more carbon than any other type of bamboo, so even put one branch in a gasifier every day, and that’s enough to power one rural household’s basic energy needs. Now do the CSR maths. A company like Infosys will need to spend R160 crore each year on CSR. Since each beema bamboo has 10 stems, a family needs 40 bamboo trees to power it for a year. Each tree costs R40, so that’s R1,600 per year per family, assuming the family has the 3,000 square feet required to grow the bamboo. At R1,600 per family per year, Infosys’s CSR can potentially power 1 million families in rural India.

Of course, bamboo requires a lot of water, so that means it can be used only in certain areas … But the short point is that even in what most will say was one of the more dismal years India has had in a long time, there was enough that was really exciting, with enough revolutionary potential. And unlike the too-many-pilots-very-few-airborne-planes of the past, we’ve already seen proof-of-concept in some like Aadhar; in others, the fact that top class firms are involved means the incubation has that much of a better chance. Happy New Year!


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