Powering ahead

Published : Feb 29, 2008 00:00 IST

WEST BENGAL stands poised for such industrial growth as will change forever its face on the map of India. Power provides the lifeblood for any industrial growth. So it comes as no surprise that the State government has laid enormous stress on the power sector.

Electricity generation in the State increased by 9.9 per cent in 2005-06 and stood at 44,899.65 million units. Out of this, the State sectors share virtually takes care of the needs of West Bengal. However, the government estimates that the demand for power will grow by 9 to 10 per cent annually. Hence the frenzied expansion programme in this sector.

The focus of the government is to strengthen further the transmission and distribution network so that the available power can be distributed widely, especially in rural areas. By 2010-2011, all rural households will have access to electricity, State Power Minister Mrinal Banerjee told Frontline. The State government has also undertaken a project to set up a state-of-the-art satellite communication for the modernisation of various management information systems to improve the consumer services of different utilities.

The power situation in the State did not always present such a rosy picture. In 1999, revenue realisation by the most important State power utility, the erstwhile West Bengal State Electricity Board (WBSEB), stood at a meagre Rs.2,000 crore. It was suffering a loss of 50 per cent, whereas under normal circumstances the loss should not have exceeded 15-20 per cent. Of the three major components the WBSEB, West Bengal Power Development Corporation Limited (WBPDCL) and Durgapur Power Ltd. (DPL) only WBPDCL was profit-earning.

The WBSEB and DPL have incurred losses right from their inception, in 1955 and 1961 respectively. The WBSEBs annual loss was between Rs.1,200 and Rs.1,400 crore, and DPL, a much smaller organisation, was registering, on an average, an annual loss of around Rs.90 crore. Though power availability in the State utilities increased to around 2,300 megawatts in the late 1990s from 1,200 MW in the previous decade, transmission and distribution facilities were lacking, resulting in power cuts, low voltage and voltage fluctuations.

Banerjee said that when he was first given the power portfolio in 1999, he was quite reluctant to take it. To tell you the truth, I was quite apprehensive at first. After all, my predecessor was none other than Shankar Sen [an eminent electrical engineer], he told Frontline. At the insistence of then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, Banerjee accepted the assignment and began the process of revamping the States power sector.

One of the first major decisions he took was to create a new board for the WBSEB. They were all technically very sound, but I felt that they simply took their job as a profession, rather than a challenge, and this negative attitude was a constant obstacle to my progress, he said.

With his hand-picked team, and no additions to the workforce, Banerjee set about turning things around, especially, the WBSEB. It was just not delving deep enough to identify the root of the failures or picking the right people for the right job, Banerjee said. He began to bring about innovations such as establishing a joint council comprising union and management representatives and, most importantly, bringing about a change in the mindset of the workers. I kept telling everyone that we had to justify our existence. The very people whom we have failed to satisfy with our service are the ones responsible for our salaries. This used to shock everybody in the department, but it got them to work, said Banerjee. The result of the labour was there for all to see. By 2001-02, the WBSEBs revenue increased to Rs.2,649 crore; in 2005-06, it was Rs.5,272 crore, and in 2006-07, it was near about Rs.6,000 crore.

Transmission and distribution losses have come down to just 26 per cent from 50 per cent. The financial year 2005-06 was a watershed in the WBSEBs 51-year history: it registered its first ever profit, of Rs.81 crore. The year was also important because of the WBSEBs elevation in rank in the All India Rating Exercise conducted by ICRA/CRISIL on behalf of the Union Ministry of Power. The Board underwent a major restructuring. In April 2007, it branched out into two separate entities, the West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company and the West Bengal State Electricity Transmission Company.

Perhaps the best example of the State governments success in its power reforms is the change in the circumstances of the average citizens of Kolkata. In the not-too-distant past, load-shedding and power failures were more or less the order of the day. Today, people get enormously irritated with even the shortest absence of power. It is to the State governments credit that certain things, such as electricity, are taken for granted by the people.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay
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