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India@76: When will these ‘vital’ projects take off?

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India boasts the world’s tallest statue (Statue of Unity, 182 m), the world’s highest railway bridge (Chenab bridge, 359 m), and the world’s longest tunnel at 10,000 ft altitude (Atal tunnel, Rohtang, 9.02 km), among other infrastructural feats. It is one of just seven countries with intercontinental ballistic missiles, one of four countries with anti-ballistic missile systems, and one of four countries with anti-satellite weapons (ASAT). Among a handful of space-faring nations, it hopes to soon join the select club of countries that have achieved a soft landing on the moon.  

Amid the euphoria of these achievements, which lend an added sheen to the country’s 77th Independence Day celebrations, there is also a dampener — several vital projects that are hanging fire.

Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) 

The 500 MW PFBR is meant to equip India with nuclear self-sufficiency. Fast breeder reactors ensure efficient use of uranium as they produce their own fuel by converting uranium-238 into plutonium-239; in the case of India, this would help convert the abundantly available thorium-232 into uranium-233, which is another nuclear fuel. 

The construction of an PFBR at Kalpakkam, near Chennai, began in 2003 by a government-owned company called BHAVINI. Twenty years down the line, the project is far from complete, even as the cost has more than doubled to Rs 6,480 crore. There is no official word on the reason for the delay or the status of the project. In December 2022 the government told the Lok Sabha that the project was expected to be completed by 2024. But such deadlineshave been missed in the past at least half a dozen times. 

Talcher Fertilizer Project 

Some years after the Talcher Fertilizer plant in Odisha was closed down in 1999, there were plans of reviving the plant in a new avatar — one capable of making urea from coal gas. Coal gasification is important for India because it has abundant coal reserves. 

Businessline reported on this project as early as in August 2014. Laying the foundation stone for the plant in September 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that production would start in three years and he would return to inaugurate the plant.  

Three years on, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved raising debt for the Rs 13,277-crore project. The project’s ‘zero date’ was fixed as October 1, 2019, and the revised date of commissioning is June 2024. In March 2023, rating agency ICRA said the project is “likely to be delayed”. 

SARAS passenger aircraft 

It was in November 1990 that the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), a public-funded research body, produced a feasibility report for developing a light passenger transport aircraft; but it was not until September 24, 1999, that the SARAS project was sanctioned. It was then believed that the aircraft would take flight in 2001, but though a prototype flew briefly in 2004, the project sputtered to a halt after one of the two prototypes crashed in 2009. 

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Asked for an update, an NAL spokesperson told businessline, “SARAS MkII is currently in the ‘detailed design’ phase; NAL is working with its partners to conclude the critical design review by the middle of next year.” 

India does not have an indigenous passenger aircraft and spends billions importing aircraft. Yet the SARAS project remains stuck in the runway. 

Gas Hydrates 

A gas hydrate is a mixture of water and methane that has turned into ice. Gas hydrates are found offshore and are a good source of natural gas. India has gas hydrate reserves totalling 1,894 trillion cubic metres in the Bay of Bengal, which promise to make the country self-sufficient in meeting its energy needs. The National Gas Hydrate Programme was initiated by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas in 1997. But it was not until 2006 that the first expedition to collect ‘cores’ was undertaken. The second expedition was in 2015, when 42 holes were drilled at 25 sites along the Andhra Pradesh and Odisha coasts. 

Also read:Indian scientists discover chemicals to help make gas hydrates faster

On July 15, 2021, at a meeting organised by the Petroleum Secretary for the mission members and professors from IIT, ONGC, India’s premier oil company, “was advised to strengthen gas hydrate-related activities and develop a time-bound action plan”. 

In March 2023, the ONGC, the National Institute of Oceanography, and the National Geophysical Research Institute submitted a proposal for five new sites in the K-G basin, apart from the two sites identified during the second expedition in 2015. 

Polavaram irrigation project 

According to a discussion paper of the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly, this project was conceived in 1941. In 1980, the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Tanguturi Anjaiah, laid the foundation stone. In 2004, Chief Minister Rajasekhara Reddy performed the bhoomi puja, with the project cost estimated at Rs 8,261 crore. The project, now estimated to cost Rs 55,548 crore, is still under construction. 

Inter-linking of rivers 

This is a 19th century project, which the Modi government seemed to take up in right earnest. The plan is to link 16 south Indian and 14 north Indian rivers, to create a river grid. Vast areas coming under irrigation, balancing of water surplus and deficits in rivers, and 35 GW of clean hydropower were the promised benefits of the Rs 8.5-lakh-crore scheme. Around 2015, work on the first of the links — the Ken-Betwa link in Uttar Pradesh-Madhya Pradesh — appeared likely to begin, but it was only in 2022-23 that the government allocated Rs 44,605 crore. Five more river links were to be taken up for detailed project reports.  





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