Insulated Wires: The Precarious Rise of West Bengal’s Power Sector

By Elizabeth Chatterjee
Regulatory Assistance Project
22 May 2017

The trajectory of West Bengal’s power sector since 2000 has been one of the most unusual and periodically encouraging of any Indian state. Under the centralized one-party dominance of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), it developed a technocratic, pragmatic, and statist model of power reforms in the hope of incentivizing industrialization. Rather than relying on restructuring or civil society activism, this model focused on internal changes—corporate governance, capacity building, and technology-aided process streamlining—to bolster the independence of the utilities. Until around 2011 it enjoyed impressive successes. Yet, even while improved power performance was popular, the overall pro-industrial tilt came at the cost of public support. With the ensuing change of government, performance began to stagnate. Faced with fierce party-political competition for its non-elite voter base, and operating with a less cohesive organizational structure, in its first term (2011-16) the Trinamool Congress struggled to preserve the new norm of political non-interference in the sector. Nonetheless, West Bengal continues to outperform many other states thanks to its innovative approach to building institutional resilience and, having been reelected, the government once again hopes that quality electricity will heighten its appeal to industrial investors. The West Bengal power sector thus offers a lens on the promise and limits of the technocratic, internally focused model of power reform, as well as the effects of (the absence of) party-political competition on the power sector.