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The last-mile problem

India's inability to finish and maintain public projects like power grids and dams means darker and drier days ahead. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Aug 02, 2012 00:19 IST

When the lights went out across the northern plains three days ago - and again two days ago, blacking out the East as well - the national ignominy was unmistakable.

On day one, little Bhutan wired over enough power to restart the Delhi Metro, a national pride and joy, and keep the Prime Minister's home and office plugged in.

Really? The country we dimly know of as a repository of happiness, recipient of Indian munificence and a monarchy with a penchant for wearing skirts?

Yes, that Bhutan is South Asia's only power-surplus country. It consumes 250 Mega Watts (MW), or about as much as Greater Kailash and Goregaon combined, I imagine, and since it produces about five times more electricity than it generates, it exports the rest to India .

So, who caused the great seven-state blackout on Monday and the monster 21-state blackout of Tuesday? Who is responsible for cutting electricity to more than 600 million people, more than the populations of the US, Canada and Brazil combined?

On Monday, we heard Uttar Pradesh was the villain, drawing wads more power than it was supposed to. On Tuesday, we heard it could have been any of the northern states. A probe team will undoubtedly tell us who was responsible.

But it is equally important we know why this happened, and how it could be a harbinger to darker and drier days.

It's well known there is a yawning - and growing - gap between electricity and water demand in India, made worse this year by a stuttering monsoon. "Dry monsoons resulted in less hydro power (nearly 20% of India's power supply) being in the grid, which is why some states may have reached beyond their scheduled supply purchases to meet demand," RN Nayak, chairman of the Power Grid Corporation, the government-owned transmission company, said hours after the first blackout.

Although India has more people living without reliable electricity than anywhere in the world, about 400 million, the country still cannot cope with electricity demand. For instance, Delhi, an urban bellwether, has set energy consumption records almost every week this summer. This month's record is 5,642 MW, which is 610 MW more than last year's high.

Indians use a fraction of electricity as compared to the West, so it is obvious energy demands will not slow. What is not so obvious is that the country generates enough electricity for current needs - it just doesn't get to consumers thanks to what experts call the last-mile problem, rickety and unreliable grids.

A source in the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), the main regulator, told me that the proximate cause of the great blackouts appears to have been equipment failure catastrophic enough to set in motion a cascade of collapses, even taking down back-up systems. "Maintenance is not something we are great with," said the source.

This lack of maintenance is a national failing; a corollary to the affinity to leave things unfinished. This weakness is particularly evident in public infrastructure like roads, dams, water supply systems and electricity grids.

Consider the Prime Minister's $400-billion investment push for India's energy sector. He would like 76,000 MW added by 2017, to the 200,000 MW that India now generates. But India's transmission and distribution losses - caused by faulty, ill-maintained equipment, power theft and unreliable monitoring - now exceed 66,000 MW. The present shortfall: 17,000 MW. You do the mathematics.

The last-mile problem has sparked a crisis in a related sector: Water. Let's focus on agricultural needs because it is pumps on drying farms that are primarily causing states to draw more electricity than they should.

This would not happen if India completed hundreds of pending irrigation projects. When I first investigated this phenomenon 14 years ago, the country needed Rs. 41,272 crore to finish major and medium dams and canals and maintain others. Some were started half a century ago, after Jawaharlal Nehru talked of the "temples of modern India"; they are now unholy monuments to unending waste. This year, the government reckons it will need Rs. 78,000 crore to finish these irrigation projects. They could still be unfinished when my grandchildren are ready to vote (my daughter is two).

Consider the Saryu Canal in Uttar Pradesh. When work started in 1976, its budget was Rs. 78 crore. It's still incomplete. The cost has increased by more than 16,000%. This April, the canal was given "national project status", meaning it would get priority funding from Delhi, which will give it Rs. 3,800 crore (in addition to Rs. 600 crore from UP).

Even when dams are built, they are useless unless the water gets to the user. This is another part of the irrigation scandal. The official figure for the shortfall in the amount of land that should be irrigated with major irrigation projects and the land actually irrigated is nearly 11 million hectares, or about the total irrigated area of Punjab, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. That's because command area development - the construction of feeder canals, distributaries and the water courses that finally go into the farmer's field - is ignored and pauperised. Fixing the last-mile problem will reduce the farmer's reliance on the pump and the monsoon.

The monsoon is, and will continue to be, the fount of India's energy and water crisis. Science predicts that as climate change accelerates, so, too, will extreme weather events and regional weather variations.

So, next time, Bhutan might not be able to help. After observing declining flows in Bhutan's rivers from monsoonal changes, the Druk Green Power Corporation, a state-owned generation company, expects a drop in electricity generation. About 99% of Bhutan's electricity is hydel power.

The Delhi Metro might want to find a new saviour.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 02, 2012 00:12 IST