Taking two steps forward, one step back
Into the 1990s, West Bengal’s sultry summers meant interminable power cuts and fewer than one in five rural households had electric lighting. Today, by contrast, villages across the state are electrified and Bengal’s utilities boast a shelf of prestigious awards. Nonetheless, there are also dark clouds on the horizon as financial losses once again start to mount – thanks most recently to a 23% cut in electricity bills for this year’s Durga Puja displays.
West Bengal’s journey shows that escaping a low-level equilibrium in the power sector is possible, but sustaining a virtuous circle of payment and performance is often difficult. The temptation for political interference in the day-to-day operation of power utilities is ever present.
Though the CPI(M) had governed West Bengal since 1977, its electricity record had been unimpressive. All this changed when the nominally socialist administration revised its economic strategy in order to court private investment. Reliable power would be a pillar of the new pro-industrial turn.
In the early 2000s, a team of senior bureaucrats and consultants began electricity reforms. Well aware of the failures of privatisation and deregulation in other states, they developed their own incremental reform path. Outside Kolkata, utilities remained under public ownership, but managers were granted greater autonomy. Officials hoped to further “reduce the human element” of corruption and inefficiency through computerisation and performance monitoring throughout the workforce. The ultimate goal was profitability, which would guarantee the utility’s independence.
This model looked surprisingly similar to another very different and more famous case: Gujarat. Both emphasised improved utility governance, technical solutions, and winning over employee unions. Both rejected outright privatisation and sought to minimise citizen participation in their electricity regulatory process. Together, these cases suggest that public sector reforms may offer a pragmatic alternative to controversial electricity liberalisation.
While popular opposition had stymied power reforms elsewhere in India, Bengali policymakers also benefitted from a series of favourable factors. Earlier, land redistribution meant that there was no powerful farmer lobby to block tariff hikes.
Like the BJP in Gujarat, the CPI(M) was able to call upon its political dominance and disciplined, centralised structure to manage dissent.
The results were impressive. From losses of Rs 1,009 crore in 2001— more than a third of total expenditure — West Bengal was one of only three states with profitable utilities in 2011. Rural household electrification rose from 20.3% in 2001 to 98% today.
Yet, as early as 2010, there were ominous signs that utility independence was under threat.
While the CPI(M)’s embrace of economic reforms had brought rewards in the electricity sector, state violence over land acquisition in Nandigram and Singur created a groundswell of popular discontent.
Intensifying competition between the CPI(M) and Trinamool Congress, in turn, increased the temptation to meddle in the power sector in order to win votes. Combining quarterly billing data with satellite images of nighttime lights across West Bengal, a recent working paper by the economist Meera Mahadevan shows this politicisation at work. She finds that the new Trinamool government rewarded constituencies it narrowly won in 2011 with faster electrification and systematically lower bill collection. Billing data from these areas is full of suspiciously round numbers, she argues, suggesting it has been manipulated. Key posts in the electricity regulator were also left vacant, undermining its power of oversight, while tariff hikes were delayed.
Traces of utility independence nonetheless remain. The original reformers mobilised to ensure tariff rises in 2012. After the 2016 state elections, which Trinamool again won handsomely, tariffs were once again allowed to rise. The new government has also ushered in an impressive expansion of rural electricity access. As Lok Sabha elections approach, though, tariff hikes have been blocked despite increasing utility costs. Utilities therefore face mounting financial losses, threatening their ability to invest in the sector’s continuing growth. Eventually, consumers will pay the price.
Classic theories developed in the West suggest that democratic competition makes politicians more likely to deliver collective goods. West Bengal’s ambivalent trajectory— two step forwards and one step back— suggests instead that intensifying competition encourages short-term strategies that undermine the power sector’s long-term health. A similar pattern is visible even in wealthier states like Tamil Nadu and Punjab, where fierce party-political competition has driven the expansion of populist subsidies and spiralling utility debts. Conversely, one-party dominance may give politicians the confidence to take unpopular decisions like cutting subsidies or cracking down on theft.
Today, the Trinamool regime looks dominant, its CPI(M) rival a spent force and the BJP still playing catch-up. Will the administration therefore decide to take a long-term view and end interference in the power sector? Previous experience suggests that this depends on how politicians perceive the likely risks and rewards. If consolidating electoral strength remains the key concern, as it seems presently, they will continue to reward new voters with cheap electricity and turn a blind eye to power theft.
If ensuring robust industrial and revenue growth becomes the priority, the long-term benefits of high-quality electricity may begin to outweigh the perils of short-term dissatisfaction. As citizens begin to expect 24/7 power in Kolkata and beyond, they may start holding politicians to this higher standard. In the longer term, then, popular pressure will become the guarantor rather than the enemy of a virtuous cycle in the power sector.
(Elizabeth Chatterjee is a politics lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. This research is based on work presented in full in the book Mapping Power, edited by Dubash, Kale and Bharvirkar.)