For many courageous young academics roaming India on fieldwork, their research is an easy sell to civilians (as we call those outside the ruggedly militant terrain of academia). I’ve met people working on prostitute castes, Indian nukes, love and marriage in Hyderabad, ‘criminal tribes’ in Rajasthan, political fixers in Mathura, caste discrimination in the UK, and a whole host of other sexy topics.
At the overpriced conferences where these people meet to chortle over the latest titular pun they thought up on gender, I’m part of a misunderstood and shunned group—a pariah, if you will. When I tell people what I work on, they begin edging away, eyes glazed with dull horror. The worst example came the one and only time I met Amartya Sen. The Warden had carefully groomed us both for the encounter, and a pleasant evening of Caerphilly and the capability approach beckoned. The diminutive lothario said gummily, ‘And what do you do?’ I panicked, and only managed to mutter: ‘I study pylons.’ He tapped a hasty retreat, and was seized by a septuagenarian lawyer with an ear-trumpet.
Why electricity?, people ask plaintively, when I’ve physically managed to corner them and cut off all means of escape. Why? WHY?
Actually, Indians don’t ask this at all, because it’s so blindingly obvious.
Come closer, children. Let me set the scene:
- An estimated 400 million Indians still lack electricity.
- During the summer, the shimmering IT metropolis of Bangalore—in the US, a byword for the theft of American jobs—suffers from three to four hours of planned blackouts.
- In 2007, business consumers cited lack of reliable electricity as the biggest hurdle they faced in India, ahead of corruption or taxation. (Indian industrialists also pay some of the highest electricity tariffs in the world to cross-subsidise farmers and residential users.)
- Pylons overloaded with illegal wires blow out: around 40%—and 60% in some areas—of electricity produced is “lost” through a combination of technical losses, mispricing, and theft; in the US, the figure is a mere 6.5%.
- Energy sources and power projects have become notorious vehicles for corruption.
- Policymakers are panicking because they earlier overestimated India’s vital coal reserves by as much as eight times.
Something is clearly rotten in the state of Denmark. In this setting, newspapers cover the sector avidly, citizens complain about it endlessly, corporations resort to circumventing it entirely. And even Arundhati Roy got involved, with typical understatement.
If the power sector is characterised by failure, it’s a very political one. Since at least 1980, electricity subsidies have been used as a political sop to buy off important rural constituencies—elections are won and lost on the issue, as the World Bank has raged for the last twenty years. But this has come at a crippling price. By 2000, the rural power subsidy came to 1.4% of India’s entire GDP. Some states were recovering less than half the cost of the electricity they produced, the single greatest contributor to their near-bankruptcy and grovelling to the central government. It is therefore no surprise that the World Bank immediately targeted the power sector for deregulation and privatisation after India was forced to go to the IMF in 1991, and the shiny new Age of Liberalisation dawned.
The World Bank’s demands [cue Imperial Death March] fell on ripe soil in the central government. The power liberalisation experiment has largely been a disappointment: more on this in later Electric Geekery posts, perhaps. (Delhi may be the only electric liberalisation poster boy still standing, after humiliations in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, but even here middle-class activists continually lobby against the private companies’ rocketing power tariffs.) The chicken of improved and increased power supply requires the egg of consumer willingness to pay more and stop stealing. But power subsidies are the opiate of too many states, and an exasperated central government seems to have abandoned efforts in favour of a two-tier system.
If you made it this far, Dear Reader, I hope this is enough to persuade you that the power sector has all the ingredients of a classic tragicomedy (happy ending pending). I’ll write more another day—unless the wacky power supply blows up my laptop, of course.