Making a mockery of public hearings
The most critical factor holding back development in Assam is chronic power shortage. It has made sustained growth of an industrial base in the State a pipe dream, general living for the people a nightmare, particularly during the long summer season. The blatantly anti-people mindset of the Assam State Electricity Board was again in full display in the recent hearing conducted in Guwahati by the Assam Electricity Regulatory Commission (AERC). Power distribution and fixing tariffs is the responsibility of Assam Power Distribution Company Ltd (APDCL), which is again girding loins to hit consumers over the head with another power tariff hike of eight paisa per unit. To cloak this intention with the formality of seeking opinions from consumers, the APDCL ected another silly drama in the garb of a public hearing. In the past, the Electricity Board had never been observed to pay any heed to the numerous pertinent suggestions put forward by individuals and various organisations. Such hearings are conducted as a matter of routine, and then inevitably yet another tariff hike is imposed on consumers. In a State that barely generates half its modest power demand, it is extremely galling for its consumers to pay some of the highest tariff rates in the country.
In the latest such public hearing, the APDCL argued its case by pointing to its losses due to power transmission and distribution (T&D), thereby necessitating another tariff hike. However it had no answer to the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti’s (KMSS) poser as to why should ordiry consumers be made to pay for the APDCL’s failure in preventing T&D losses. What is more, why should the APDCL conduct the latest public hearing as a precursor to hiking tariffs, when it had fixed the tariff rates from 2013-14 to 2015-16 during its hearing conducted on September 27-28 in 2013? Consumer forums like ‘Grahak Suraksha Sanstha’ and ‘Consumers’ Legal Protection Forum’ too strongly opposed the proposed hike. While the public is paying through its nose for costly power in Assam, the State government blithely carries on wasting unmetered power. From government offices big and small to the State Secretariat as well as the MLAs hostel to ministerial quarters — the Assam government pays a total fixed bill of just Rs 12 crore per year. Even then the Assam government defaults on this amount. It owes outstanding dues of Rs 23 crore to the APDCL as of now. So the APDCL has lately begun installing pre-paid meters at government offices which will have to clear power bills every month. The wonder is that it took this long for the APDCL to think of treating government offices on the same footing as ordiry power consumers. It remains to be seen how soon government offices learn to curb their profligate ways as far as power usage is concerned. Will the VIP power consumers in the State ever acquire the habit of watching their meter readings? That hardly seems likely soon.
The entire power generation and distribution scerio in Assam remains opaque. The Assam Power Generation Corporation Ltd (APGCL) has no credible plans to raise power output in the State. The state generates on its own 485 MW while buying 700 MW power from other sources to meet its average peak demand of around 1,200 MW. The nearly 25 per cent loss in transmission and distribution of power in Assam is much higher than States like Punjab, Gujarat and Kerala. Far more employees are engaged in Assam power entities compared to many larger States, with corresponding high costs of establishment and administration. The State government has also been providing subsidies to the State Electricity Board. It is this bloated, inefficient public utility, a veritable white elephant whose load power consumers in Assam are forced to bear. Let us not forget that the demand for power in the State does not account for the legions of deprived households and small scale units starving for power. If the industrial growth and GDP growth rates of Assam are to come up to tiol levels, the power demand may at least treble to around 3,500 by 2020. Does the Assam government have any vision, any comprehensive plan of action to improve the State’s power supply position? Considering the almost total lack of action in the State Power department in the three consecutive terms of Tarun Gogoi, the outlook remains gloomy and grim.