Power shortages sap India's industry

The power situation in Calcutta, India's eastern metropolis, has been woeful for years. The supply of electricity to factories and homes is rationed for limited periods during the day.

This has adversely affected industrial production. For the private citizen, it has meant that the electric kettle refuses to boil at teatime. People sit before a darkened television screen in the evenings swatting mosquitoes. Since private booster pumps are essential for pumping water to flats above the ground floor level, there are waterless summer days when the pumps do not function. Sweltering nights without the fan, which is essential for middle-class homes, are also well known in this humid, tropical city.

This is typical of the way shortages of electric power, which are sapping India's industrial growth, are brought home to its citizens.

There were massive power shortages ranging between 10 and 43 percent in the first quarter of the fiscal year 1981-82. They affected the eastern states of West Bengal and Bihar, as well as the northern heartland, comprising the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Maharashtra in the west and Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south also had shortages.

This adversely affected industrial production, especially in West Bengal and Bihar. It also hit farming, which is dependent these days on electrical pumps. As against a total countrywide demand of 32,158 gigawatt-hours (gwh.), the supply of power during April-June 1981 was only 28,028 gwh., making a shortfall of 12.8 percent (or 4,130 gwh.) overall.

This was the grim situation in spite of the modest increase in power generation in 1980-81 after near-stagnation and even regression of the preceding year. As the following examples illustrate, the situation is a complex mixture of gains and losses. But overall the losses outweigh any gains.

For instance, thermal power stations, which supply more than 85 percent of the power used in the eastern region, raised their production by 20 percent throughout the region. But the Damodar Valley Corporation had a deficit of 18.4 percent for April-June of '81. This is the major hydroelectric project in the eastern region. It uses surplus water from the River Damodar, which flows through West Bengal and Bihar. Nevertheless, this was an improvement over the deficit of more than 40 percent during the same period the previous year (1980).

The northern region had quite a different experience. It produces as much thermal power as hydro power. In Uttar Pradesh, which produces about one-third of the total power generated in the region, hydro power generation increased by 113.1 percent for April-June of '81, compared with the same period for the previous year. Thermal power generation in Uttar Pradesh went up 54 percent.

On the other hand, hydro power went down by 31.8 percent in Rajasthan and the production of thermal power decreased 8.3 percent in the Union territory of Delhi. This is the urban, semiurban, and rural region around the national capital of New Delhi. It is governed directly by the Union government, as are a few other small enclaves elsewhere in the country. The overall increases in this region were 6.6 percent for hydroelectric power and 28.6 percent for thermal power, counting the April-June period of 1980, with its very low figures, as the base.

Recently, the public-sector plan for 1982-83 has been cut drastically by the Planning Commission. This is in accord with the government's demand for a higher defense allocation at the cost of all but the so-called ''core'' sector of the economy. In September, the midpoint of the current (sixth) plan, another review will be made. According to knowledgeable sources, further cuts will be introduced in whatever remains of the plan. The core sector, furthermore, contains little else apart from petroleum and electricity. Given this, an assessment of how far the power generation targets are being fulfilled becomes an important barometer for judging the performance of the Indian government.

Meanwhile, there seems little sense of urgency in attempts to improve the overall efficiency of existing plants, many of which produce below their designed capacity. Inefficiency and bottlenecks delay all schedules set for commissioning new plants. The result is that expensive equipment lies exposed to the weather. The ensuing deterioriation lowers its capacity when eventually used. Costs mount because of the long period taken to complete a project.

The power crisis has hit the railways, steel production, and other basic industries hard. This is among the reasons the Reserve Bank of India has expressed grave misgivings about the soundness of the country's industrial infrastructure.

More and more industries are using their own generation units, even though these are expensive to run and add to production costs. Some industrialists see in these ''captive'' generation units the only hope for industrial progress.

A major drawback inherent in the planning process is that plans are drawn up for gigantic projects without any thought given to micro-hydro projects. Yet the potential for modest-size plants is estimated to be 10 times that of the big installations. Micro-hydro projects are not only smaller and more manageable, but also have a far shorter gestation period. Indeed, a private company has recently signed an agreement with the Chinese National Machinery Export-Import Corporation for technical help and know-how. This is in connection with projects for which it has already submitted tenders to various state governments.

Compare this with the 180-mw. hydro unit at Bairasul, Madhya Pradesh. It has reportedly been commissioned even though it cannot yet generate at its rated capacity because of the delay in constructing the dam. Other projects waiting to be commissioned are: Bandel, 210 mw.; Bongaigaon, 220 mw.; Srisailam and Nagarjuna Sagar, 320 mw.; Singerauli, 210 mw.; Talcher, 110 mw.; and Wanabora, 210 mw. How soon the Indian Energy Ministry can make these units functional is not a matter of academic interest, but a question of light or darkness in more senses than one for the Indian people.

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