As a power crisis grips the nation, a look at the long-suffering Northeast
Recently, there was a severe disruption of power supply to the Northeast, especially Assam. This was caused by the sudden collapse of one 400 kV tower in West Bengal supposed to transmit power to the north-eastern region, which was restored immediately. This incident indicates the fragile situation in Northeast India. Added to this, there has been an open admission by both state as well as the Central governments of the growth of Maoists in the Northeast, particularly in upper Assam. This news is important to the people of the region, particularly entrepreneurs and businessmen. However, I would not like to dwell upon this subject for now.
It was reportedly claimed that the agitation against the establishment of a 2,000 MW hydro power station in lower Subansiri along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border was infiltrated by extremists. This recurring issue needs to be immediately resolved so that the power-starved north-eastern states can benefit from this project.
One of the reasons for the poor economic and industrial development in north-eastern India is poor infrastructure and power. All these are severely power-deficit states. Barring Assam and Meghalaya, none can boast of generating significant power either through the hydro or the thermal sector. Even Assam, presently with an installed capacity of about 376 MW, is able to generate only 280 MW, while its demand is more than 1,200 MW. Most of these seven states have a severe power crisis during winter and summer. Therefore, the region’s backwardness could be attributed directly to poor power supply and generation.
The tables indicate the status of all installed capacity (in MW) of power in the Northeast as on March 31, including allocated shares in joint and Central sector utilities.
Even in the agricultural sector, the production of paddy and other products is sub-optimal due to poor infrastructure and lack of power supply during the lean period. Therefore, poor employment opportunities and poor economic status is one of the main reasons for the proliferation of insurgency in these states. A small state like Manipur, with a total population of only 27.21 lakh, has approximately 35 insurgent groups. This could be attributed directly to the lack of infrastructure, failure of rural development agencies, poor connectivity and no employment opportunities for youth. The only source of employment lies in migration.
Therefore, for development, peace and stability in the Northeast, it is imperative that the existing infrastructure and power supply be improved. It is unfortunate that despite the presence of large opportunities in the Northeast (30,000 MW) for small hydro and gas-based thermal power stations, we are yet to tap these resources.
Similar is the case of natural gas, which is flared without usage. Although there is coal in north-eastern India, it is not enough to maintain large thermal power stations. It is fortunate that the NTPC is building one 750 MW coal-based thermal power station near New Bongaigaon with coal imported from central India. This project was taken up when I was working as secretary in the Union power ministry in 2009-10, and it is expected to complete one phase by December 2012 and the remaining in 2013 or early 2014. If this 750 MW power station is completed, there will be some respite, but this is not sufficient to meet the growing demands of the sister states. Hence, there is a need to fast-track power generating stations using natural gas. This warrants immediate stepping up of oil exploration by ONGC in the Northeast.
When one talks about natural gas, one has to look towards Tripura and natural gas-bearing areas on the Assam-Nagaland border. The Central government and state governments of the Northeast should collaborate to explore the possibilities of immediately establishing gas-based power stations. The existing project of Palatana (750 MW) in Tripura, a gas-based power station being built by BHEL, should be expedited. It was reliably learnt that it would be ready for operation by July 2012.
Another area to be pursued vigorously is joint ventures of gas-based power stations in Bangladesh. India will be supplying approximately 200 MW power to Bangladesh. This was agreed upon during 2009, and it was mentioned by Md Abul Kalam Azad, secretary of power division in Bangladesh’s power ministry, last month that Bangladesh will commission the transmission line by 2013. Since India will supply power to Bangladesh, it is desirable to allow NTPC or other PSUs to set up joint venture gas-based power stations in Bangladesh so that India’s expertise and capacity could be beneficial for both countries. The long-pending Tipaimukh hydro power station of 500 MW in Manipur is awaiting implementation due to various issues within government and also certain objections from Bangladesh. This needs to be taken forward.
Similarly, the NEEPCO (North-Eastern Electric Power Corporation Ltd), which is based in Shillong and is the sole agency entrusted with developing power generating capacity for the entire Northeast, should be made more accountable for faster development. This is required because small states like Nagaland, Manipur or Arunachal have neither large funds nor the technical knowhow to develop these projects. Hydro power projects and natural gas projects require very heavy initial investment, with a long gestation period, to become commercially viable. It is difficult to expect these small states to invest such amounts.
Hence, the NEEPCO or other national PSUs should be entrusted with the additional responsibility to implement these projects. While implementing them, due care should be taken to ensure that natural resources and people’s livelihood are not disturbed. We should cause minimal damage to the natural habitats of local indigenous peoples in remote hill areas of these states. In fact, some of the major hydro-electric projects in the Northeast, especially in Arunachal, have been stalled due to these issues.
Finally, what we require is our national resolve and fortitude to plan, execute and commission these projects for the larger benefit of the country.
The writer is Election Commissioner of India and former Secretary, Ministry of Power, Views expressed are personal