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Let there be light

If power woes don’t go away we will continue to stare at a de-energised future

The world’s biggest power blackout was a great leveller in India’s highly unequal society. As diesel gensets started spluttering on account of overuse and battery inverters packed up, the rich realised — even if for a brief period — how the bottom half survives. The government acknowledges that nearly one-fourth of the country’s population still has no access to electricity and close to three-fourth of 1.2 billion people still depend on wood fuel, agricultural waste and livestock dung (gobar) for energy requirements.

The biggest electricity outage in the history of the planet, which affected around 600 million, was a consequence of many complex factors. But the root causes of the crisis can be summarised in two interlinked words that epitomise much of what has gone wrong with this country: greed and corruption.

Greed and indiscipline are intertwined. When representatives of many state governments simultaneously overdraw power, the result is a grid collapse. Simple! Why do so many individuals who are supposed to be qualified engineers, technocrats, bureaucrats and, of course, their political masters, act in such an utterly callous and irresponsible manner? Answer: each one of them thought they could get away with this “minor” misdemeanour.

Why are so many misdemeanours committed together? Because piffling penalties can at best be imposed by regulators, most of whom are retired bureaucrats who lack the spine to be stern and proactive. The result is that no one sits up and takes notice until the problem become too big to ignore.

The second aspect of the problem is corruption. It’s hardly a secret that much of the electricity that is generated is not billed, paid or accounted for — sought to be included into a catch-all category called “T&D” losses also known as “transmission and distribution” losses; or, in late Union Power Minister Kumaramangalam’s words, “theft and dacoity” losses.

Going by official statistics, nearly one-third of the power generated in India disappears under the category “T&D” losses. If this amount of electricity was paid for and made available, the combined losses of all state electricity boards/power distribution companies would come down by around `2 lakh crore.
Over the decades, emphasis has been placed on setting up new generating capacities (required, of course, but a great source of corruption) instead of improving transmission and distribution. Secondly, the country is excessively dependent on coal-based electricity (comprising over three-fourth of the total) and has only recently started paying greater attention to developing renewable sources of energy, notably wind and solar power.
A few aspects of the recent power blackout need highlighting. When electricity demand peaks, the deficit should, under ideal circumstances, be largely met by non-thermal power, especially hydro-electricity. This year, during the April-June period, due to low water levels in reservoirs, generation of hydel power actually came down by nearly a fifth in comparison to the corresponding period in the previous year. The hike in thermal generation could not fully compensate for the loss of hydel power.

Next to food security, energy security is arguably India’s biggest concern. Imports meet around 30 per cent of India’s total energy requirements. Over 80 per cent of the country’s total requirement of crude oil is currently imported while around one-sixth (16 per cent) of coal consumed is imported. The share of hydrocarbons in total energy use is expected to go up in the years ahead.

There are no easy solutions in sight. It is well-known that coal-based or thermal power is critical to India’s energy security. Land acquisition and environment clearances pose major problems for companies generating power as well as mining coal. There is a debate raging in the country — including within different ministries of the government — on a range of issues relating to land acquisition, such as what constitutes “public purpose” and the modalities of rehabilitation of “project affected persons”. These issues are unlikely to be resolved quickly and India will continue to face a de-energised future.