Originally Published 2012-08-09 00:00:00 Published on Aug 09, 2012
Get away from the barter system of vote bank politics. Politicians need to rise above petty politics and show they haven't got feet of Vernacular clay. This will be the first step to prove to the world that we are a mature democracy.
Patronage leaves us powerless
Last week, India was in the grip of a severe power crisis following a rare grid failure in a decade. The northern grid failure last Wednesday had cascading effects on the 28 states and the 7 union territories of the country; accounting for losses that run into billions of rupees and darkness that impacted millions of people. Life in metros came to a grinding halt. And the outage loomed for two consecutive days.

While it is easy to dwell on a blockout due to grid failure, the fact of the matter is that even in the best of times one third of India’s 1.2 billion population lacks access to electricity. Several hamlets in rural India are yet to see the light of the day and many receive an hour of electricity in a week. So what was so different last Wednesday?

With the grid failure what we witnessed was a swift game of shifting the blame on each other by politicians across party lines. The Centre blamed the states for overdrawing power, the opposition party blamed the central government for not creating surplus power in the past eight years, so on and so forth. While there are merits in several of these accusations, the root cause of the power crisis is ’vote bank politics’.

In spite of boasting a high GDP growth rate, half of which comes from the services sector ($1.8 trillion), 70 percent of Indian voters live in rural areas and half of them are engaged in the agriculture sector. Electricity plays a pivotal role in agriculture.

India, after 64 years of Independence, still remains a ’patronage democracy’, where the state reigns supreme over scarce resources or has a monopoly over them. Politicians have considerable influence over the distribution of these resources. Voters select leaders who can provide them access to state resources either cheap or free i.e. electricity, fertilizers, job, oil. In other words, leaders follow a barter system, state resources are bartered for vote. This has resulted in free or cheap electricity in rural areas for agriculture and in urban area for slum dwellers etc. And it has also created a power dilemma for politicians - while free electricity equals to a winning formula in an election, the same election may be lost at the altar of governance of the power sector.

’Coalition dharma’ also prevents ’grid discipline’. In the era of coalition politics or fractured mandate, the central government fails to rein in the erring states, who are blamed for drawing electricity from the grid more than their allotted quota. Any forceful measure to enforce ’grid discipline’ or penalise the defaulters will lead to loss of a valuable alliance partner to a rival alliance and thus jeopardise the fulcrum of central government.

Distribution or line losses cost India a staggering 30 percent in losses. Line losses are nothing but a technical term coined to hide theft and waste. True, there are losses caused due to poor infrastructure, waste and theft, but equally true is the ’politically motivated theft’. Take a look at a recent report of the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Michigan which argues that line losses are more during elections in Uttar Pradesh. Politicians, officials condone electricity theft more around elections. Currently, Uttar Pradesh has a population of 200 million and incidentally these are the people blamed as the main culprit for the grid failure.

A country where one third of its billion plus population has no access to electricity, the power crisis would have not sounded new. But, for its timing which is causing concern in the power corridors of New Delhi. When the Prime Minister is talking about reviving the "animal spirit" of the Indian economy, electricity crisis will lead to a "growing crisis of confidence in the government". The incumbent government is already drawing flak for several corruption cases in its second term and the slow down in economy due to global economic crisis. So what is the solution?

1. Central government should enforce ’grid discipline’ strictly. A strong penal action should be initiated on the erring states and officials. As the India Central Electricity Regulatory Commission data shows several states drew between 3 percent and 51 percent more power than allocated on the fateful day.

2. In a timed manner, the states should be forced to disinvest and liberalise state electricity boards. Most of the state electricity boards are reeling under financial losses and don’t have the monetary muscle to upgrade transmission and distribution facilities.

3. Electricity regulatory commission should be free and impartial in the states where disinvestment has been already done.

4. Set the ball rolling for Coal India reform. Twenty years after the License-Quota-Permit raj got over, Coal India has a virtual monopoly over coal blocks. Earlier this year, it was pm Manmohan Singh who intervened when Coal India announced to import 80% of coal committed for power generation and split the cost of import with power firm. It’s high time the PM intervened in the messy coal situation in India and kickstarted coal production either through privatisation or the PPP model. Today, most of the plants complain about erratic coal supply linkages or being allocated useless coal links to power plants.

5. Last but not the least, get away from the barter system of vote bank politics. Politicians need to rise above petty politics and show they haven’t got feet of Vernacular clay. This will be the first step to prove to the world that we are a mature democracy.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

Courtesy: the tehelka.com
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