The power outages are all about a failure of governance. That’s one dark spot that refuses to go away.

The mega black-outs over the past couple of days, which plunged a major part of the country into darkness, point not so much to the shortage of electricity, of which the grid failure is a symptom, as to the shortage of vision and governance, of which the grid failure is the result.

India set a dubious record on Tuesday, by sending a record number of people into darkness. The failure of the Northern, Eastern and North-Eastern grids meant that more than 600 million people went without electricity for hours – the largest population to be impacted by a power outage in the world.

This, despite having the world’s fifth largest power generating capacity. India has more than 234 gigawatts of generating capacity. Of this, 31.5 gigawatts is in the form of captive generation capacity, feeding specific industrial units. The rest is in the public space, and is supposed to feed everyone else. This capacity is supposed to keep trains running, homes and offices lit, and keep hospitals, educational institutions and hundreds of thousands of industrial units without captive power running.

On paper, this is a lot of power. There should not be the kind of demand overload which lead to the kind of disastrous grid collapses that we have been witness to. But clearly, what’s on paper and what exists on the ground are two different things.

WHY THE CRISIS

According to Power Ministry data, in 2011-12, the average requirement was 9,37,199 million units (MU. 1 MU equals 1 gigawatt hour), while the availability was 8,57,886 MU, or a deficit of 8.5 per cent. This rises to 10.6 per cent in peak hours. As with all government data, this needs to be taken with a slight pinch of salt. Peaking demand has been consistently outstripping estimates, and the peaks are getting closer to each other. Independent estimates put the peaking demand shortage at as high as 20-22 per cent.

Availability is another issue. India may have the fifth largest generating capacity in the world, but it is the world’s fourth largest power consumer. And just because capacity is installed does not mean that power is available. The overall Plant Load Factor or the percentage of capacity that generating stations actually put out, was a little over 73.3 per cent in 2011-12 (Power Ministry data). That was last financial year.

Currently, thermal energy-based plants are idling more than a quarter of their capacity due to coal shortages or non-availability of natural gas. Hydroelectric capacity has been hit because of an exceptionally deficient monsoon. And nearly a third of the power generated is lost in transmission and distribution. These facts, shocking as they are, are nothing new. They have been well known to the government, industry and even the consumer at large for years.

India’s power sector has been a train wreck waiting to happen. Like a scene from a movie, consumers have been stuck on the tracks in an immobilised vehicle, with no way of escape, while a freight train thunders down the tracks at them. The train driver has seen the vehicle and has even slammed on the brakes, but momentum and the laws of physics make a crash inevitable. In the movies, this is where the hero steps in, engineering a miraculous escape at the eleventh hour.

However, real life, as we all know, is nothing like the movies. There was no rescuing hero and no last minute escape. The inevitable crash happened on Monday, and just in case some people missed it the first time around, was played out again on Tuesday.

The blackout has come at the worst possible time for the government, struggling to cope with a slowing economy, a failing monsoon and apparently endless bickering among its members – not to speak of the equally endless series of scams and corruption charges which have been battering it almost non-stop since it returned to power four years ago.

INEXPLICABLE REACTION

One would have thought this should have been incentive enough for the government in general, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in particular, to shake off the miasma of indecision and inaction surrounding his government, and take some drastic action: Action, one has little doubt, which would have found widespread support from not just the voting public, but industry, which seems to be playing a crucial role in everything from government formation to policy making these days.

But the mega blackout appears to have pushed even industry, despite its cosy relationship with the players on the political and bureaucratic stage at the individual level, to a point where it was willing to call a spade a spade. As the director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry pointed out in an anguished statement after Tuesday’s repeat show, “As one of the emerging economies of the world, which is home to almost a sixth of the world population, it is imperative that our basic infrastructure requirements are in keeping with India’s aspirations. The developments (of Monday and Tuesday) have created a huge dent in the country’s reputation.”

So what does the Prime Minister do? Instead of punishing the minister in charge of power for non-performance, or cracking down on the errant States whose indiscriminate usage of what is meant to be a shared resource precipitated the crisis, he goes and does the opposite.

Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde is rewarded for being asleep at the wheel for years (he held the post in the previous UPA government as well) with one of the three most sought-after posts in the Cabinet.

And, while millions of Indians were struggling to manage without power, he sends a part-time minister, whose only genuine claim to fame is a 22,000 verses-long reprise of the Ramayana, to hold charge. The reshuffle, and the sharply different perceptions of it between the political class and the public, is in fact symbolic of the malaise which has affected policy making and executive action in the power sector, not just in this government, but in every government before it.

The political class simply does not care. In a country like India, one would have thought that portfolios like power, industry, roads, ports and other infrastructure and even labour– after all we do have the world’s second largest workforce and the largest absolute numbers of both the poor and the unemployed – would have been considered ‘important’ and hence sought after posts.

Instead, the jobs which most politicians want – if they can’t get to be Prime Minister, that is – are that of the defence minister or the home minister or the finance minister!

It is no coincidence that India has missed its annual, self-imposed targets for adding power generation capacity in every single year since planned development started in 1951. After all, no one is being made to pay the price for this non-performance.

(This article was published on August 1, 2012)
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