Chennai: Electricity bills have risen drastically in the last two years,” says the head of a family—the father—in an advertisement showing on a television channel linked to the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
“It is (chief minister J.) Jayalalithaa’s government which raised the price per unit of power, so don’t get cheated and don’t vote for All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK),” the ad concludes.
“If Tamil Nadu is reeling under power shortage, it is because of the lack of foresight of the M. Karunanidhi-led DMK government on implementing power projects in the state,” says Jayalalithaa, who is also AIADMK party chief, in her election campaign speeches.
While corruption and development top the agenda of politicians in the April-May general election in the rest of the country, the issue that is uppermost in voters’ mind in Tamil Nadu is erratic electricity supply.
Tamil Nadu leads the rest of India in many social and economic indicators, and had surplus power a decade ago. But over the last two years, it has been hit by daily electricity cuts of 8-10 hours in all areas except the capital Chennai, where, too, cuts last for up to two hours. Rural areas can go without electricity for up to 14 hours.
The power crisis has become a major issue for political parties, which blame each other and none more so than the two Dravidian stalwarts—the AIADMK and DMK—that have ruled the state for over four decades.
The DMK most recently was in power from 2006-2011 while Jayalalithaa is in her fourth term as chief minister, the AIADMK having won the 2011 state assembly elections.
“If the state is facing severe power crises it is solely because of Jayalalithaa did not implement the power projects approved by the previous DMK government,” said M.K. Kanimozhi, member of Parliament and daughter of DMK party chief M. Karunanidhi, at one of her election rallies.
The Third Front in Tamil Nadu, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its fellow-constituents of the National Democratic Alliance, have all raised their voices against the power shortage being faced by people in the state.
“Power crises, shortage of drinking water and inflation, rather than corruption, impacts the common man’s life and livelihood and, therefore, gains more significance as a poll issue,” said Gnani Sankaran, a political commentator who recently joined the Aam Aadmi Party and is contesting a state assembly by-election from the Alandur constituency.
The protracted power shortage has resulted in small and tiny enterprises shutting shop and workers losing their jobs.
“Shutters of many small and tiny factories that make anything from metal castings to kitchen-top grinders have been down, showing they are defunct due to the acute electricity shortage,” said J. James, Coimbatore district president of the Tamil Nadu Association of Cottage and Micro Enterprises that has 4,000 members in Coimbatore.
More than 760,000 registered micro and small entrepreneurs that employ 5.3 million people in Tamil Nadu have been struggling as a result of power shortages.
The power crisis in Tamil Nadu started around 2005, primarily due to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board’s (TNEB) “lack of foresight”; improper planning and synchronization of expansion activities; poor operational and financial management; and poor utilization of wind energy, said Amol Kotwal, associate director, energy and power system practices, Frost and Sullivan, a consulting firm.
Between 2005 and 2012, TNEB’s power generation capacity addition was only around 330 MW, whereas demand during this same period increased by almost 10 times to about 3,800 MW. TNEB fell short on forecasting the demand.
Additionally, TNEB failed to revise tariffs. In the 2000 to 2010 decade, it sought tariff revisions only three times even as costs shot up. After 2003, the first tariff revision was in July 2007, and then in April 2012.
TNEB did not respond to Mint’s email and phone calls.
With power, fuel, wage and interest costs shooting up, TNEB’s average realization in the last five years has amounted to just Rs.3.74 per unit against an average supply cost of Rs.6.15 per unit—a gap of 40%.
With successive governments unwilling to bear the subsidy cost, TNEB has had to take on this burden on itself. According to TNEB estimates, 11 billion units, worth Rs.6,600 crore, are given as free/subsidized power annually. Until 2012, all that the utility got from the government was Rs.250 crore towards the subsidy. Lower tariffs and cross-subsidization, with higher energy charges being levied on industrial and commercial customers worsened the financial position. TNEB financed the deficit through borrowings.
At the same time, Tamil Nadu occupies the top slot in the country for wind energy with an installed capacity of approximately 7,000 MW, which makes up nearly 40% of the total power generation capacity installed of the state.
However, due to poor transmission and distribution infrastructure, it has been plagued by evacuation issues. Lines for transmission and evacuation of electricity are few and the existing infrastructure cannot take much load—there are only 14 400kV substations.
The power situation was expected to improve when the southern grid was connected with other regional grids forming the national grid in early January 2014, enabled through the commissioning of a single line from Raichur in Karnataka to Solapur in Maharashtra.
“The single link may have been commissioned but this is unlikely to increase the power import capability of the southern region since the second-circuit Raichur-Solapur line, which is a crucial buffer for putting the transmission link into operation, is not ready yet,” said Kotwal.
This existing single link is capable of carrying only 800 MW (despite a 2,500 MW wheeling capacity on paper). If power flows were to exceed this, the line could potentially trip, making it challenging for Tamil Nadu to bridge the power shortage completely through the single link connection.
“If not for the long power cuts extending to 10-14 hour, experienced by people living in most parts of Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK could have had a cake walk (in the election),” conceded a former DMK minister who did not want to be named.