The occasion was World Biofuel Day. The venue: Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. The audience was a collective of scientists, students, farmers, and entrepreneurs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief guest and speaker, there to unveil the “National Policy on Biofuels 2018”. Not many would’ve guessed that an event with such solemn overtones would end up becoming a source of amusement and online ridicule.
The reason for this was the Prime Minister’s speech. Modi told a story—one he had read in the news—about a tea-seller’s ingenious harnessing of a combustible gas emanating from a nearby sewer. He said the tea-seller flipped a utensil upside down, put a pipe through it by cutting a hole, and used the gas coming out of the sewer. The Prime Minister marvelled at such simple technology to high applause from his audience.
The subject of this story turns out to be Shyam Rao Shirke, a mechanical contractor from Chhattisgarh who claims to have patented this technology. Talking about his alleged invention, Shirke told ANI he “collected water from drains and made a mini ‘collector’ to collect water bubbles, used a drum to make a gas holder. When tested, [the] system was functional. I connected it to a gas stove and made tea.” Shirke claimed that scientists told him his paper had been sent to “higher authorities”. He said, “It has already been two years hence, I had forgotten about it … Chhattisgarh Science & Technology gave me money to take it to next level. I built and installed it in a nallah. In three days, enough gas was collected. It was installed in a house where food was prepared for four to five months.”
What was notable, though, was the reaction of various media outlets to Modi’s remarks. In the primetime slot, Times Now’s Navika Kumar demonstrated that the Prime Minister’s utterances had flared political tempers instead of scientific ones. With the self-righteous and bullying manner that has now become her signature, she propped up Rahul Gandhi’s remarks and implied that those questioning Modi’s claims were questioning the innovativeness of common Indians.
OpIndia took it upon itself to inform everyone that biogas can be produced from wastewater and accumulated garbage. In a show of scientific bravado, it published a piece from The True Picture that argued that cooking through biofuel is not just a large-scale possibility but can be engineered by an individual. The article cited a 2014 story from a Chhattisgarh-based regional publication Chhattisgarh Khabar, which reported the same Shyam Rao Shirke’s feat of cooking tea over a nallah by channeling methane gas from sewers. To shore up its thesis, it directed readers to a website that reported how a Madhya Pradesh family discovered LPG in their borewell by its smell—when in fact LPG is an odourless gas that doesn’t occur at mere borewell level depths.The pieceadded: “This is possibly methane”—another odourless gas.
NewsX, on the other hand, took the liberty of explaining science to its readers, the sources of which were strikingly absent. Their story said: “When the water flows in the gutter along with the waste and other particles, the smell present in the gutter due to pressure generated there, enters into the tanks and is converted into gas (methane gas) and which is later used as a cooking gas by Shyam Rao Shirke to prepare tea at his tea-stall.”
The smell in the gutter is converted into methane?
News websites also referenced a report published in The Hindu in 2013 to make a point about how sewage waste can be converted into cooking gas. What they didn’t point out, however, was this report mentions the production of this gas from a full-fledged bio-methanation plant—not a pipe, utensil, and a stove, as PM Modi would have it.
The whole affair raised two important issues. First, the Prime Minister’s oversimplified and misleading explanation of a scientific process which he incorrectly praised as a “simple technology”. Speaking to India Today, Akhilesh Kumar Verma, a professor of chemistry at Delhi University, said the conversion of sewer waste to combustible cooking gas is a “complicated, technical process which required expertise and proper scientific understanding”. India Today also carried a picture of a diagram of Shyam Rao Shirke’s model, which had little resemblance to Modi’s description. India Today also helpfully informed us that “making biofuel from sewage waste is very much a scientific reality”. Who would have thought.
Second, and most importantly, however, was the poor scientific literacy that such a coverage revealed. While NewsX’s explanation was rambling and slightly dubious, OpIndia didn’t even bother with elementary science. Neither pointed out that an inflammable gas from the gutter cannot simply be harvested by a pipe and a utensil to make tea. Gases can’t be channelled through pipes without adequate pressure systems. For example, natural gas is moved through pipelines using compressors which enable its movement from an area of high pressure to an area of relatively low pressure.
Another scientific intervention that never appeared is the following: lighting a stove over a repository of a combustible gas risks a large and dangerous explosion. Due to biological decomposition of garbage, frayed wires, and leakages in underground gas pipes, sewer networks can accumulate concentrated amounts of inflammable gases. There are regular reports from around the world about how owing to small ignitions, these gases can cause violent explosions and blow up urban manholes, often along with the whole street (for instance, see here, here, and here). Either this phenomenon remains unknown to them, or it didn’t occur to them amidst their preoccupation of defending Modi ji.