Mumbai: For 18 years, Shamsuddin, now 30 years old, has worked powerlooms at Bhiwandi, 60km from downtown Mumbai.
Work was plentiful at this town, home to five lakh of the 1.8 million powerlooms in the country, and he had no trouble raising three children on his earnings, usually Rs4,000 a month. That has changed over the past few months. Shamsuddin now earns Rs2,000 a month; in March, he sent his wife and children away to his village, in Uttar Pradesh’s Maharajganj district.
“I can’t keep my hungry family here,” he said. Shamsuddin sleeps in a room above the looms to save on rent and send more money to his family. Bhiwandi’s looms don’t make as much noise, or spin as much cloth, as they used to: as Maharashtra’s worst ever power crisis looms, the town is learning to live without electricity for 12 hours; and its powerloom industry is learning to cope with losses of Rs40 crore a day and working two shifts instead of the usual three.
Like Bhiwandi, all of Maharashtra is slowly coming to grips with a power shortage of 6,700MW, a third more than last year’s. A decade ago, Maharashtra, which is still one of the country’s most industrialized states, was power surplus. Then, in the late 1990s, its showpiece power project, the Dabhol Power Company, promoted by Enron, collapsed under charges of high tariffs and untenable counter-guarantees issued by the government. Since then, demand for power in the state has risen appreciably, but no new power plants have come up. The state has planned six along the Konkan coast, in areas such as Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri, but some are mired in environmental controversies and the rest could just take time.
It doesn’t help that most of the planned projects are to be fuelled by coal; the Konkan coast is the only area of the state where this can be brought in easily by ship; it is also an environmentally rich region and home to Maharashtra’s famed alphonso mangoes.
Mumbai has thus far been shielded from power cuts, but it could face its first scheduled ones this season. The shortage in the city is expected to be 400MW, double last year’s. In February, the Maharashtra government estimated that the state would be short of power by 5,500MW. In April, it revised it to 6,700MW. “The load-shedding schedule has increased so much so suddenly that there is nothing we can do,” said Vikram Salunkhe, who heads the small-scale industries segment at the Pune-based Maharashtra Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, demand for power continues to grow. With three lakh homes in the state getting new electricity connections every year, demand is growing at 6.75% a year. The construction boom isn’t helping, with more homes, malls and multiplexes set to come up. Pramod Deo, chairman of the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission (MERC), the state power regulator, calls malls and multiplexes the city’s “power guzzlers”. That doesn’t mean anything: the number of malls in Mumbai is slated to go up to 51 from 15 currently.
This year, the shortage has been caused by a combination of events: some power plants, which together generate 1,000MW, are down for maintenance; the Uran gas-powered plant doesn’t have enough gas; the Koyna hydro-electric project doesn’t have enough water; and the state’s efforts to reduce power theft in rural areas hasn’t worked. The Dabhol plant, since renamed Ratnagiri Gas Power Project Ltd (RGPPL), can generate 2,200MW, but it doesn’t have enough gas; the company has sourced naphtha to run the plant through summer, but the port where this fuel is to land isn’t ready yet.
Maharashtra could, as in the previous years, buy power from the north-eastern grid, which supplies power to the country’s Northeast, but this year, a shortage in northern states has forced the northern grid to get there first. Maharashtra has nowhere to go.
The Maharashtra government is working on setting up additional capacity, but these plants will take three to five years to start supplying power. Meanwhile, Mumbai readies for its first scheduled power cuts, which could last up to 90 minutes a day.
To encourage power conservation, Mumbai’s three power utilities—the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport System (which also runs the city’s bus service), Reliance Energy and Tata Power Company—plan to collect more money from people who use more than 300MW. They expect this to help them meet the rising cost of buying power to make up for the shortage. The centrepiece of their communication efforts to reduce the city’s power consumption is the “I will, Bombay will” ad campaign, financed by collecting surcharges from users who did not cut down their power usage by 10% last summer as they had been instructed to. Now, hoardings around the city are teaching them how to do exactly that, by sporting slogans such as “I will keep my air-conditioner at 24 degrees”. This summer, the utilities will charge Rs17 for a unit for power that lights up the city’s billboards; otherwise, a unit is billed at Rs5. For a city that has aspirations of being an international financial centre, the prospect of a life governed by load-shedding schedules and controlled power usage isn’t easy to live with.
At Bhiwandi, powerloom weavers face a more immediate problem: customers going elsewhere. Purushottam Wango, president of the Bhiwandi Padmanagar Powerloom Weavers Association, said they were turning to factories in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The town, which has around three lakh migrants from Bihar, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, has seen around one lakh of this number leave for their villages. Eight of Wango’s 22 workers have left; this means that even when there is power, there is no one to work his looms. Powerloom owners run enterprises that are much too small to set up captive power units that large companies have, and which helps them negotiate power shortages.
Maharashtra’s long hot summer will ease once the monsoon arrives. Or once the RGPPL plant is functional. Or once at least a few of the five or six planned plants come up. Two new ultra mega power projects, coming up in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, will also supply power to Maharashtra. All the new projects, however, will take at least three years to be operational and with demand for electricity growing at 6.75% a year, all of this could still not be enough by 2010. Maharashtra “could have worked harder to remedy the situation”, says Nikit Abhyankar, of the Pune-based watchdog group Prayas, which has an advocacy group on power policy.
At La Marche, a new hypermarket in Mumbai’s western suburb of Jogeshwari, residents from the neighbouring slums spend hot afternoons not shopping, but enjoying the air-conditioned atmosphere. They will continue to do so till the malls and hypermarkets start switching off their air-conditioners. MERC has just upped their power rates.