Posted by: John Elliott | July 31, 2012

Creaking India hit by power and railway failures

Power Minister promoted to Home Minister as power cuts hit half of India

Power supplies covering half of India’s 1.2bn population have been cut for up to eleven hours today in the third example since Sunday night of how the country’s under-invested and badly managed infrastructure is creaking its way to near-collapse.

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Ten states in the north have been without power after the national grid failed, apparently because it was overloaded by at least three states drawing down more their authorised share of electricity.

This is said to be the world’s biggest ever power collapse and followed another massive shutdown on Sunday night when power covering a quarter of the population was cut after the state of Uttar Pradesh exceeded its quota.

Also on Sunday night, a fire on an express train killed 32 people. That followed two train collisions and 29 deaths in May.

These shutdowns and disasters are the result of chronic failure of India’s government, which has been in power since 2004, to tackle infrastructure problems that have been building for many years. The failure stems from Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, who has been restricted in what he can do on economic reforms both by Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party and the governing coalition, and by coalition partners.

Then there are inefficient and non-performing ministers in charge of key sectors.

One of them is Sushilkumar Shinde (below) who has been responsible for electricity supplies as Minister of Power for three years and this evening has been promoted in a small cabinet reshuffle to be Minister of Home Affairs, despite the failures of the past two days (see last paras below).

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He does not bear total responsibility for the grid failures because power supplies are managed by individual states  and form part of an overall energy crisis. Power generation has been seriously hit by coal shortages from badly-run government-owned Coal India that have led to some power stations cutting output and shutting down. Management of coal production has also been disrupted by corrupt mining licences. The basic failure to do more to address the power problems is however down to him.

Then there is Mukul Roy, the Minister for Railways, who spends most of his time working on party affairs in West Bengal, where his regional Trinamool Party is based, and rarely visits his Railways Ministry office in Delhi.

He was appointed in March to replace Dinesh Trivedi, another Trinamool member, who lost his job after he introduced a reformist annual Railway Budget that displeased his party boss, Mamata Banerjee. Trivedi’s plans included a major safety upgrade financed by across-the-board fare increases which have not gone ahead because Banerjee did not approve them.

Such is life with coalition politics – regional party bosses are more interested in their regional interests than the country as a whole, and the prime minister can neither control what such a minister does, nor dismiss him or her. The government has caught what is dubbed “policy paralysis” and economic growth has slumped from almost 10% to not much more than 6%.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article on this blog arguing that India could no longer survive as it has in the past by simply turning muddle and adversity into some form of (often inadequate) success, assuming that everything will eventually function adequately. Reliance on what is known as jugaad – making do and innovating with what’s available rather than looking for new levels of performance and excellence – is a brilliant solution for a deprived and under-developed society, but it is not enough in a country at India’s stage of development (even though it is now, rather belatedly, being picked up by management writers as a new panacea).

India overwhelmed

In the past few years, India’s pace of events has overwhelmed this approach, making it impossible for the country to cope with basic services, projects and development. This was graphically demonstrated with chaotic and corrupt preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, but there are many other examples. The most evident involve public sector infrastructure, ranging from annual monsoon flooding that cripples Mumbai and chaotically inadequate services in Delhi’s satellite city of Gurgaon, to unhealthy water supplies, annual fog delays at Delhi airport, and building collapses – and now the record power shutdowns and rail disaster in the past two days.

Corruption plays a part in each one of these examples, most often with contracts and licences being awarded to undeserving companies that then perform badly. This prevents central and state governments adequately addressing key issues, and leads both the public and private sector to assume that they can buy their way into contracts and out of problems.

On top of that are social issues, including the use of agricultural land for industry which slows the development of both power and mining projects. These issues becoming more crucial and potentially disruptive as the poor see the well off capitalising on India’s economic growth..

Today’s power cuts stretched across India from the borders with Pakistan in the west to Bangladesh and China in the east, and southwards from the Himalayas to the middle of India.That area has a population of over 600m, but many do not have any access to electricity so the actual number of people whose homes lost power could be nearer 350m.

Trains were stranded across the country for up to 12 hours as the cumulative effect of the two shutdowns built up. Delhi’s highly efficient Metro railway closed, and roads were blocked by traffic light failures. Most businesses and many urban private homes have (expensive) generating sets that supply stand-by power, but these failed to keep the country running.

Shinde blamed the system collapse on some states drawing more than their share of electricity from the overstretched grid, and said he had “given instructions that whoever overdraws power will be punished.” Stealing power, whether it is a next-door neighbour’s or an overhead power line is standard practice in India. It is hardly surprising therefore that some states have been taking more than their allotted share from the grid at a time when an unusually  poor monsoon – with a draught in some areas – is increasing power demand. Temperatures rise to over 35 deg C, so there is also heavy demand for air conditioning. Threatening punishment is a typical official reaction when something goes wrong – the railway minister promised an inquiry into the fire, presuming that similarly would silence critics and enable him to return to his party affairs.

Sonia boosts Shinde

Tonight’s small cabinet reshuffle has been triggered by Pranab Mukherjee, the Finance Minister, becoming India’s President last week. Palaniappan Chidambaram, the highly efficient but abrasive Home Minister, has taken his place, returning to a post he held from 2004 to 2008. Chidambaram has strengthened the Home Ministry and the nation’s security since 2008, and it is unlikely that Shinde, who is favoured because he is trusted by Sonia Gandhi, will perform as effectively.

Shinde has been succeeded as Power Minister by Corporate Affairs Minister Veerappa Moily, who, for the time being, will do both jobs – and presumably will not be able to provide the single-minded focus that is desperately needed by the power industry.

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Responses

  1. [...] form of (often inadequate) success, assuming that everything will eventually function adequately. I last wrote about it commenting on last month’s power blackouts and railway [...]

  2. India has a badly managed infrastructure. And there was a massive power shutdown due to grid indiscipline. But are the two things linked? This can happen in any country. It is becoming tiresome when media is trying to frame every event in the context of India’s stalled reforms or slowing growth.

    I like reading your blog but think you have given in to generalizations and sensationalism in this post.


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