The Make in India campaign by the Modi government is in full flow.
There is a visceral “feel-good” factor about making something in our country, isn’t there? The economists among you will point out that feeling good viscerally is not enough, it should feel good economically too. And it is indeed true that making everything at home might not always make economic sense – to most of us will spring to mind Adam Smith’s concept of Comparative Advantage in The Wealth of Nations (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparative_advantage ).
But in the case of solar power, I am confident that Make in India makes excellent economic sense as well. This, despite the fact that countries such as China have achieved enormous economies of scale and are higher up the learning curve for solar manufacturing, thus seemingly having considerable comparative advantage over India.
So why would I argue that solar manufacturing in India makes economic sense?
Because, today energy is the new labour, and the cost of energy will significantly drive where things are made. And energy is also the real lever that can lift millions of Indians out of the morass they find themselves in.
Within energy, I single out electricity. It is electricity that will really provide the escape velocity to a number of underserved stakeholders in India today. To the 300 million Indians who have no access to the grid and hence little or no access to electricity. To the tens of thousands of small manufacturing businesses whose productivities (and their employees’ livelihoods) are severely curtailed because they do not get 24X7 power. To the hundreds of thousands of government schools that do not impart quality education partly because of erratic power supply. To the…
It is not jugaad (simple work-arounds) that can help massive transformations happen for these sectors, how much ever the romantically inclined among you wish for that to happen. The single most important lever that can provide the escape velocity to transform these hundreds of millions of Indians into healthy, well-educated and more productive stakeholders is electricity.
Imagine 300-400 million underprivileged Indians becoming healthier, brighter and more productive. Can you imagine a more powerful driver to make India an economic superpower?
With its strengths, in the form of stable technology, modularity, flexibility and fast decreasing costs, solar provides an avenue for India to become “electricity” secure. Sure, this would take a while. Even if India achieves the target of 100 GW by 2022 , solar will still contribute only about 5% of total electricity generated. Perhaps it will be 2050 when solar generates most of our electricity. But make no mistake – it is only a question of when, not if.
If solar could play such a critical role in shaping the destiny of India, why would we want to rely on some other nation for stuff that go into solar power generation?
We. Simply. Should Not.
The government of India should take the call today to turn India into a massive manufacturing hub for solar power, and go the extra hundreds of yards to make this happen. There will be short term costs to bear, but have we not learnt from China how building scales and a manufacturing ecosystem make massive economic sense in the medium and long term, for vital industries?
And, solar is one of the most vital industries for India today, if not the most vital.
For those who feel that India should wait a bit longer before plunging headlong into solar manufacturing, it is worth borrowing a nice saying from – where else but – China: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is: NOW.