The bounty of power

Print edition : January 02, 2004

The WBSEB has brought the State stability in the power sector, thereby contributing to its economic and industrial resurgence.

EVER since electrical power started replacing mechanical power, the generation of electricity has been a major yardstick of economic growth. Even during the Emergency, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not forget to include the rationalisation of State Electricity Boards (SEBs) as one of the important items in her 20-point programme.

Hydel power requires very low maintenance costs and is much less susceptible to fluctuations. But, unfortunately for West Bengal, its economy is overwhelmingly dependent on thermal power (even though the country's first hydel power plant was set up in 1897 in Sidrapong, a village in Darjeeling, West Bengal). The first thermal power plant was also set up in West Bengal - in Kolkata in 1899. In that respect, the State, historically, is the pioneer in power sector development in the country.

If one still deplores the relatively high plant load factor and transmission distribution losses incurred by power plants in West Bengal, one should recall the dark days of the 1970s when Kolkata and its suburbs experienced prolonged power cuts. But in the 1980s, the State government steadily added to the State's generation capacity, and today it can in fact boast of a modest surplus. Cynics, however, attribute this success to the relative lack of industrial demand for power in West Bengal. But that is not really so, for even industries, as is evident, are picking up.

The West Bengal State Electricity Board (WBSEB) is one of the reasons for the State's stability in the power sector. It has in turn paved the way for an industrial and economic resurgence. Coming a long way since its inception in 1955, the WBSEB today reaches more than 40 lakh consumers - private, industrial and agricultural - and covers over 87,000 km from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.

Apart from the expertise it has gathered in its nearly 50 years of operations, the WBSEB today can boast of ready availability of power, a dedicated distribution system in 11 industrial growth centres, tariff concessions up to 40 per cent for the first six years for new industries and rehabilitated sick units, and further concessions on Time of the Day (TOD) metering systems. It has also realised the importance of having an alternative power generating system and is giving priority to the development of hydel power in the State, so as to obtain the perfect thermal-hydro mix for achieving the right peak load management.

In its efforts to reach quality power to an even greater number of consumers, the WBSEB has come up with several important projects. The Purulia Pump Storage Project (4X25 MW) is under implementation, with financial assistance from the Japan Bank of International Cooperation. The project is expected to be operational by 2007. In the current fiscal, the SEB plans to take up the installation of 1,555 km of new 33/11/6.6 KV lines, upgrade 500 km of existing lines, set up new substations with a transformation capacity of 135 MVA (megavolt ampere) and augment the capacity of existing substations by 165 MVA.

Last year on July 27, the WBSEB signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Union Ministry of Power in connection with the Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme (APDRP). Out of its 17 distribution circles, three have been brought under the purview of the programme, namely, Bidhannagar, South 24 Parganas and Howrah.

Funds are a cause of concern for WBSEB. Hence, it is chalking out a programme to modernise its management, to bring about cost-effectiveness and efficiency in the functioning of its different wings, and also restore its financial health. Three functions that the SEB has earmarked for improvement are: (1) increasing revenue and reducing cost; (2) adopting a cost-effective inventory management; (3) forging a system of participatory management to enable workers and the management to discus important issues and work together to reach common goals.

The WBSEB, along with West Bengal Power Development Corporation Ltd (WBPDCL) and Durgapur Projects Ltd (DPL) in the State sector; CESC Ltd and Dishergarh Power Supply Corporation (DPSC) in the private sector; and the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) in the Central sector, has made the power position in the State comfortable. In addition to these, there are captive power generating units that have added to the State's total installed capacity of 7,700 MW.

The West Bengal government also set up in 2000 a State public sector unit, West Bengal Rural Energy Development Corporation Ltd (WBREDCL), as part of its power sector reform. According to WBREDCL chairman Sujan Chakraborti, "this is the only organisation of its kind in the country which caters strictly to rural electricity consumers". In the last three years, the company has electrified 1,852 mouzas (small land revenue units). Of the 37,910 inhabited mouzas in the State, 31,367 are therefore electrified now.

"There are some mouzas, which though officially labelled electrified, are still in darkness, perhaps due to a systems failure which has not been corrected for years, or for any other reason. It is our job to bring back electricity there too. In three years we have done intensification work in 5,639 mouzas," Chakraborti told Frontline. In the current fiscal year, WBREDCL has planned the electrification of 950 more virgin mouzas, the intensification of 300 mouzas, the revitalisation of 50 mouzas, and the energisation of 1,000 pumpsets. "By 2007, we intend to electrify all the virgin mouzas in the State, and our target for completing the intensification and revitalisation work is 2012," said Chakraborti. The company's source of power is the WBSEB. The implementation of projects is also done with the help of WBSEB officials.

A unique feature of WBREDCL's functioning is that it is largely decentralised in its planning, execution and monitoring operations to the district and sub-district levels. At the district level, the apex body is the District Rural Energy Committee, whose members include the Sabhadipati (chairman of the zilla panchayat) and the District Magistrate; at the block level, there is the Block Rural Energy Committee, headed by the Block Sabhadipati and the Block Development Officer (BDO). At the most basic level of this structure is the Beneficiary Committee, comprising a gram panchayat member, a local teacher and a local youth representative. After the electrification and intensification work is done, the Beneficiary Committee takes up the role of monitoring and protecting the transformer, and hence it is known as the Transformer Protection Committee.

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