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Electrify and be dammed - The Times of India

Lalita Panicker ()
October 29, 1998

Title: Electrify and be dammed
Author: Lalita Panicker
Publication: The Times of India
Date: October 29, 1998

The power situation in the country appears to be worsening by
the day, with the National Thermal Power Corporation threatening
to wield the big stick with defaulters like Delhi and Uttar
Pradesh. But Power Minister PR Kumaramangalam sees brighter
prospects ahead as his much touted power reforms get underway.
In conversation with Lalita Panicker, the irrepressible minister
and recent entrant into the BJP is confident that he will dispel
the darkness during his tenure and focus on cleaner power if
environmental activists will let him get on with his job.

Q: With the Electricity Regulatory Authority in place, people
had hoped that there would be some improvement in the power
situation. Why has this not happened?
A: There is nothing wrong with generation. The problem lies with
distribution and transmission. Delhi, for example, is a
textbook case of bad transmission and distribution caused by
dishonest consumers. We have here a situation where people use
up excess load which strains the distribution system. The power
is available, but people just refuse to apply for an increase in
load, so if 100 people use five times their allotment, the
system trips. If you bypass laws, what can I do? We have been
telling people, apply for excess load and we will give it to
you. Another major problem we face is theft. Here again, Delhi
tops the charts. The national loss in transmission and
distribution is 21 per cent, but the figure for Delhi is 41 per
cent. Significantly, the theft is not from the JJ colonies as
most people imagine, they account for a mere three per cent. The
real culprits are the large commercial complexes and industries.
My advice to people is openly declare the correct load you need,
take the right connections and you will face no shortage of

Q: At what stage are your much publicised power reforms?
A: I have completed all my reforms at the central level. What we
need to do now is separate generation, transmission and
distribution. A lot of people have been advocating privatisation
of power as the panacea to all our problems. But I feel no
single formula is the answer. We should go in for a judicious
mix of both public and private involvement in power.
Independent regulators are in place in 19 states. So really, the
stage is set and all the legal framework for a modern power
system are in place, except perhaps in the north-east where we
need to set up a common regulator. In fact, we are trying out an
experiment in Orissa which if it succeeds could serve as a model
for other states.

Q: Do you think you will be able to realise your plan of
generating 3, 000 MW more in the next two years?
A: Well, we have four projects in the pipeline, we have already
commissioned 500 MW and I hope that we can commission the
balance by March 1999. Two of our fast track projects have
already begun so I am quite hopeful that with this and another
scheme to promote licencee private distributors, things should
look up before 2000. But you must be aware that any new project
in-, variably runs into trouble by so-called expert NGOs.

Q: Are you referring to the Tehri project on which you have made
various tough pronouncements?
A: The Tehri project has got held up due to many reasons. The
genuine reason is that it is caught in an inter state dispute.
The artificial one is the issue of ecology and rehabilitation
and resettlement. Normally any hydro project in the Himalayan
region runs the risk of being in a potential earthquake area.
But this does not mean that we do not tap the good hydro
potential in the region. No project is undertaken without a
proper structural analysis of the seismic implications and
requirements. All environmental procedures have been cleared,
all structural requirements have been fulfilled. But now
Sunderlal Bahuguna wants a dam break analysis. You tell me, what
happens when a dam breaks. Naturally the whole area gets
flooded, if Tehri breaks a large part of Pakistan will also be
tinder water. And Bahuguna wants only an American expert to do,
this analysis, as if we don't have capable people here.

Q: Are you suggesting that there is some motive behind this?
A: The facts speak for themselves. These environmentalists who
have been shouting themselves hoarse over Tehri are doing so at
the behest of vested interests. They are doing so, I suspect, at
the bidding of fossil fuel manufacturers. To an extent I will
admit that rehabilitation and resettlement has not been entirely
satisfactory. But what locus standi does Bahuguna and Medha
Patkar have? Are they the true representatives of the local
people. They certainly don't enjoy the support in the locality
as they do in the media.

Q: But can you explain then, what has been the staying power of
people like Medha Patkar who has been working for this cause for
so many years if she does not enjoy local support?
A: Let us be clear, politicians have also propped up people like
her. The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh backed her because he
had an axe to grind in the water dispute with neighbouring
states. But I would be interested to know how NGOs, people's
workers like Bahuguna and Patkar jet around the world first
class, who pays for al I this. Let us have transparency on all

Q: Are you saying that come what may you will go ahead full
steam with the project?
A: Development means having to put your foot down sometimes.
Disputes over water sharing or irrelevant objections from NGOs
should not affect power generation. I cannot talk to each and
every NGO who comes along, any NGO who works to help the people
is welcome but I will not listen to these self-styled experts
who have an opinion on every development project. I will go by
empirical evidence and ensure that the dam comes up with
complete accountability to the people who will benefit from it.

Q: The world over there is a trend away from big dams though we
are persisting with these mega projects. Is this feasible
A: The size of dams is one thing but hydropower is recognised
all over the world as cheaper and cleaner than thermal power.
Whereas we have a potential of 180,000 MW of hydropower, we are
generating only 20,000 MW Thermal power costs Rs 2 per unit
while hydropower costs six paise. How much more money can we
lose? Don't people realise that by raising these objections they
are damaging the economy? A few decades ago, India and China had
the same levels of power generation. Today China generates
200,000 MW while we generate 90,000 MW. The Chinese don't have
Medha Patkars telling them what to do. The world over the ration
for hydropower to thermal is 60:40. Ours is 25:75. We have come
out with hydro policy and will pursue this path.

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