Lead kindly light

Published : Oct 09, 2009 00:00 IST

A schoolboy doing his homework under streetlights during a power shutdown in Bangalore. A file photograph.-G.R.N. SOMASHEKAR

A schoolboy doing his homework under streetlights during a power shutdown in Bangalore. A file photograph.-G.R.N. SOMASHEKAR

AS the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and some political analysts seem to believe, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) may well have played a significant role in bringing it back to power at the Centre. Many agree that the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy implemented the scheme extremely well in Andhra Pradesh, and this got the Congress the large number of seats it now has in the Lok Sabha. But everyone also agrees, in all likelihood the UPA as well, that the UPAs pathetic performance in the power sector did not help it win any votes.

In the first five years, it was easy to put all the blame on the National Democratic Alliance. Bad planning, it was said again and again, short-sighted planning or no planning at all these apparently were the NDAs faults, and the UPA was left holding the baby. To an extent that was true. It can surely not be the UPAs case that in all its five years in office it could do nothing to remedy the bleak situation. But figures show that the UPA did nothing substantial.

There is that much-talked-of plan to launch ultra mega power projects (UMPPs). But it remains only a plan. The only UMPP that the Ministry of Power awarded during the tenure of UPA-I was the Sasan 4,000 megawatt project. That leaves the country with the dismal achievement of the Tenth Plan, in which a target of 41,000 MW was set and all that was achieved was 23,000 MW.

In actual terms it means, as we all know, that farmers get power if they ever get it for about two hours a week in most States, and in every city and town there is more darkness than light, except for a few metropolitan cities where the power goes off for the relatively civilised period of two hours a day.

In the capital city, in the 21st century, there are areas that do not get power for four to six hours a day, with the different power companies blaming the government-owned distribution agency, the agency blaming the companies and all of them blaming alternately the State government and the Central government. Angry citizens have taken to the streets; there has been violence, but the situation continues to be what it was. Sometimes India is likened to, or bracketed with, China and referred to as an emerging economic superpower. Given its record as far as producing power is concerned, it has a lot of emerging to do.

The huge shortage of power means lower production of both agricultural produce and industrial goods. Minister for Road Transport and Highways Kamal Nath may be building excellent roads but these may not be carrying much in the way of produce of any kind, which will mean a slowdown eventually, and then he will not have any funds with which to continue with his road building. When that slows, transport will become even more difficult and hazardous, leading to problems of a new and formidable kind.

This is where the curious nature of the decision of the UPA concerning power comes in. It knew only too well that Sushil Kumar Shinde did very little in UPA-I when he was Power Minister. Yet the UPA put him back in that same, crucial post. And, if a story carried by a leading magazine in the country is to be believed, the Prime Ministers Office has sent a strong note to the Power Ministry, upbraiding it for its shortcomings and saying, among other things, that it has set an absurdly high target of 78,000 MW for the Eleventh Plan, which is a sure-fire recipe for political criticism. (The hardship of citizens does not seem to be part of the equation here, but one can let that pass; the note is from one bureaucrat to another.) That note also reportedly says that the five-year period from 1998 to 2003 played a pivotal role in the reform process and that the subsequent five years (2004 to 2009, when the UPA was in power) can only be called a decade of missed opportunities.

Strong words, these. But why was the same ineffectual Power Minister reinstated? It cannot be that the PMO speaks with one voice and the Prime Minister with another. The one clearly reflects what the other feels. So what is the reason for this enigma? Given the level of underperformance, one would have expected a complete shake-up of the Ministry itself, leave alone appointing a Minister who can deliver. But nothing of the kind has happened.

After the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, the government showed that it can move fast if it wants to. Home Minister Shivraj Patil was asked to go. P. Chidambaram was brought in, and he quickly took some radical steps to reorganise the countrys counter-terrorism forces and systems. But when it comes to power, there is this strange paralysis. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh surely knows that sending strong notes to persons who have already demonstrated that they are underperformers is of no use at all. It makes the strong note look comic because it will clearly not have any effect.

In every democracy, there are political compulsions. We see these at work everywhere. But must political compulsions be at the cost of the welfare of the people? Is the NREGA a panacea, the only one the country needs? Is power not a crucial, if not the most vital, driver of the development process?

It would be a sad day if Manmohan Singh meekly accepts that the Power Ministry will be in the hands of the inept political and bureaucratic and contents himself with having his office send them strong notes. And, what is even more depressing is that recently there were reports in the media that Manmohan Singh had expressed his unhappiness at the performance of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Ministry of Rural Development and written to the Ministers concerned to that effect. This may be a rumour, but the fact that more than one magazine carried it makes it seem more a leak than a rumour. The interesting thing is that only those two Ministries were mentioned in the media stories and, sadly, not the Ministry of Power. All we have on power is the Prime Ministers own recent observation that it is of vital importance for the growth of the country.

We do not need emergency situation to galvanise the government into action to get the country more power. The perception of those at the highest levels of government should do. And they know only too well that there are urgent remedial measures available to them until the long-term measures the UMPPs and other projects actually come up, perhaps in the Twelfth Plan period.

These urgent, short-term remedial measures can ward off political criticism and will be of considerable benefit to people, both in the rural as well the urban areas, because they can become effective within the next five years, just when, as it happens, the next Lok Sabha elections are due.

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