One state after another recorded some degree of load-shedding this week just as summer settled in across India. It is set to get worse as we head into the peak of summer that the months of May-June bring. There are several issues that demand careful attention here but, irrespective of which way they are examined, what stands out as a common thread through the generation, distribution, and supply of power is gross mismanagement that portends a terrible disruption in life and work in the weeks ahead.
This week recorded the highest peak power demand across India and it is set to rise by at least 8 per cent in May, according to the central power ministry. The supply has fallen short across most states – more in some, less in others – but power cuts and load-shedding became par for the course in April itself. Power cuts in Mumbai and Gurugram made national headlines but smaller cities and towns are struggling with power cuts of up to eight hours a day. Urban India is still prioritised for power supply in most states. But, rural areas suffer the longest cuts and, therefore, harshest summers. What went so horribly wrong this year?
There has been a rise in the demand for power in both urban and rural areas this month which can be attributed to at least two factors: the return of near-normalcy after two long years of pandemic-related pauses and the sudden spike in day and night temperatures in large parts of the country. Despite talk of an impending fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fact is that authorities have lowered the guard all over; mask mandates are off, in-campus and in-office work has resumed in full flow, buses and trains are crowded as they used to be, and bazaars are back in action. The resumption of economic and social activities to near-normal pre-pandemic level would bring forth a rise in demand for, among other essentials, power. This could have – rather should have – been anticipated by governments, both at the Centre and in states as well as by power generating companies in the public and private sector. There is hardly any evidence that they undertook careful planning exercises. The spurt in demand seems to have taken them all by surprise.
Added to this is the extremely hot summer with heat waves sweeping large parts of the country. The northwest of India recorded the hottest March in more than a hundred years and a hotter April which saw day temperatures soar into the mid-40 degrees Celsius. Even allowing for the fact that most state governments did not foresee such high summer temperatures – strictly speaking, this is unpardonable given the enormous literature available on the impact of Climate Change – it is now a part of the life cycle that demand for power shoots up between March and June. The incremental rise in demand this summer could not have tipped the scales so badly in so many states that load-shedding timetables had to be issued and power-sufficient elite cities like Mumbai and Gurugram too have had to put up with power cuts.
Hotter summers and higher power demand will be par for the course. Not anticipating it, being unprepared for it, and pushing the consequences – long power cuts or load-shedding – on to the consumers who are the last in this assembly line is nothing if not utter mismanagement. State governments and power generating companies, however, have cried off on the grounds that they faced a severe shortage of coal across their plants; domestic production of coal was down and imports did not measure up to the extent they should have. This is where the Centre too must share the blame for mismanagement – import and export of coal is in its purview, coal policies are its domain, the push for coal or alternate and renewable sources of energy is entirely in its jurisdiction, and the key industrialist for both coal import and production of renewable energy is the government’s best friend.
The mishandling of the coal sector, from auctioning of coal blocks to regulating a steady supply to states, lies at the heart of the current power crisis. Coal inventory, by all reckoning, is at its lowest in the last nine years. Delhi’s power minister is on record that some of the generating plants have coal supply for only a day, Uttar Pradesh’s electricity generation is short of its target by a staggering 3,000 MW a day which means its rural areas have power for barely 15 hours in peak summer. Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Punjab, Kerala – name any state and there are stories of coal shortage. Even a fairly stable power generation state like Maharashtra has had to resort to load-shedding earlier this month. A few have tried to make good with increased hydro power and other sources, but that clearly does not make the cut. If coal is the primary and largest source of electricity generation but its inventory is so grossly bungled then it would be a miracle if there was uninterrupted power generation and supply. Even without the additional stresses of the heatwave and increased economic activity, the coal supply might have fallen short.