Policy Engagements and Blogs

Mapping Power argues that successful electricity reforms in India depend on linkages with electoral gains

Navroz K Dubash

October 16, 2018
16 October 2018
Mapping Power argues that successful electricity reforms in India depend on linkages with electoral gains


On September 17, Suresh Prabhu (Union Minister of Commerce & Industry and Civil Aviation), Jairam Ramesh (Member of Parliament), Narendra Taneja (National Spokesperson, BJP), and Dr Pramod Deo (former Chairman, Central Electricity Regulatory Commission) launched Mapping Power: The Political Economy of Electricity in India’s States at the India International CentreThe book was published by Oxford University Press, and edited by Navroz K Dubash (Professor, Centre for Policy Research), Sunila S Kale (Director, South Asia Centre at the University of Washington), and Ranjit Bharvirkar (Principal, Regulatory Assistance Project). The launch event was followed by a technical panel discussion with Professor D V Ramana (Professor, Xavier Institute of Management Bhubaneshwar), Aditi Phadnis (Political Editor, Business Standard), and Shantanu Dixit, the Group Coordinator of Prayas (Energy Group).

Mapping Power provides the first comprehensive analysis of the politics of electricity distribution across fifteen Indian states. The book examines why, despite several decades of reform, India’s electricity sector remains marked by financial indebtedness and an inability to provide universal, high quality electricity for all. The volume’s fifteen chapters, written by scholars of politics and electricity, trace the power sector in states as diverse as Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Jharkhand. Through these state narratives, the authors argue that attempts to depoliticise electricity reforms are misplaced. ‘Electricity reforms will only succeed if they provide greater political payoffs than the status quo,’ said Navroz K Dubash. At the launch event, Jairam Ramesh agreed that electricity reforms were inherently political decisions. ‘Power sector reforms are less a technocratic process and more a political process,’ said Jairam Ramesh. ‘You cannot have a cookie-cutter approach to power sector reforms in which you treat all states as identical cases.’

So how do we ensure simultaneous electoral and electricity gains? The book suggests that answering this question begins with a thorough analysis of state-specific politics. ‘The politics of electricity varies in each state,’ said Sunila S Kale. ‘For example, electricity politics may be driven by subsidy and quality of service in Delhi, procurement politics in Jharkhand, and the balance of farmer and industrial interests in Maharashtra.’ Understanding the political factors that drive the sector, the editors suggest, will allow state-specific linkages between electoral gains and electricity reforms.

While the centre always has a role to play, one important function is to create financial space for state-level reforms. ‘UDAY can be useful in creating breathing room for manoeuvre,’ said Ranjit Bharvirkar, ‘but that space has to be used to change underlying conditions that cause political pressures, not just kick the can down the road.’ Commenting on another centre-led initiative, the separation of carriage and content in the proposed Electricity Act amendment, Dr Pramod Deo remarked, ‘The new amendment brings up the same problems. No chief minister is going to give away control of a Rs. 65,000 crore utility.’

At the launch event, the speakers discussed the importance of decentralised electricity distribution systems. ‘As Indians, we need to re-work the entire architecture of the energy sector, said Narendra Taneja. ‘It’s fundamentally flawed. We need something decentralised, and better regulated, where economic fundamentals are respected and at the same time, consumers participate in it.’ The panelists also recognised the need to increase both domestic and industrial rates of electricity consumption. ‘We’re chasing gigawatts, when we ought to be chasing kilowatts,’ said Jairam Ramesh and continued, ‘What will ultimately help in increasing per capita consumption of electricity will be chasing the kilowatts.’ Narendra Taneja described decentralisation as a means to increase consumer participation across the grid. ‘We need to set up lakhs of solar republics in India – republics with their own regulation, their own tariffs. The only way forward is if we decentralise,’ said Taneja. ‘Let the Kanpur tariff rate be completely different from that of Lucknow or Agra.’

The video of the second panel discussion can be accessed here.

‘Mapping Power: The Political Economy of Electricity in India’s States’ is available for purchase online here, and more details about the Mapping Power Project can be accessed here. The editors have also published an op-ed in the Hindustan Times called ‘Reform in the electricity sector is all about getting the politics right,’ which can be accessed here. Links to the remaining op-eds are given below.

Op-Eds in the Mapping Power Series: