India is slow to set up new power capacity principally because it is short of fossil fuels. Coal is mined hesitantly and natural gas, the other feedstock for power plants, is just beginning to flow in from new offshore finds. The government rations both. The immediate response to a power sector in distress is to give it a bigger slice of the pie. The sustainable response will need the pie to grow overall. India's basic energy shortage is compounded by the policy of selling electricity to consumers at politically correct prices. The government-owned distribution monopolies in the states have all but lost their ability to buy power because their political bosses force them to sell it cheap, sometimes free, to voters. This opportunism is hurting the economy: India's peak power deficit over the past decade has never dropped below 10%. The government estimates unaccounted for sale of power in India, at a third of the total, costs the country 1% of its gross domestic product.
The road ahead for reforms in India's power sector is well lit. Introduce competition in all three areas of the business - generation, transmission and distribution - to enhance productivity and contain leakages. Create an independent watchdog that can withstand the political pressures playing on different links of the nation's power supply chain. Finally, free up pricing to make Indian consumers more responsible for the electricity they use. This has been the broad course of power sector reforms the world over. With dramatically successful results. India's inglorious record in producing power has had a depressingly familiar ring to it for years. It would be a leap of hope of experience to expect Mr Singh's troubleshooters can in the next 90 days do much more than tide the immediate crisis away.