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Why Tamil Nadu’s power crisis could be Jayalalithaa's undoing

Going by the promise of the Tamil Nadu government, the state would have been spared severe power shortages by June; but even six months after the promised deadline, the situation seems to be moving into a much deeper crisis.

The duration of power cuts in the state has increased from one hour to two hours in Chennai and eight to 16 hours in rural areas, both scheduled and unscheduled.

Not that the government is being stingy, but it doesn’t have enough electricity to distribute. To make matters worse, the progress it had envisaged hasn’t worked and it’s unlikely to work for a long period to come.

Right now, the situation is to ease by 2013 and the state to become power surplus by end of 2013.

Will the power crisis hit the Chief Minister's prospects in the next elections? AFP

It means the state will have not only generated 4000 MW of additional power, which is the deficit at the moment, but it will also have more to spare. Going by the wishful thinking and broken promises for a year, one’s natural instinct would be to remain totally dispirited by the announcement.

The opposition DMK - led by its patriarch M Karunanidhi, former deputy chief minister MK Stalin and other top leaders - went to the streets last week slamming the government for not resolving the power crisis.

“That the High Court will have to monitor whatever has been submitted before it goes to show the integrity of the state government,” he said, according to the Hindu.

But what the DMK has conveniently hid from its protestors and others is that the power shortage was largely its failure, while it ran the previous government, to plan and implement new power projects given that they have long gestation periods. He was silent on Jayalalithaa’s earlier charge that the state could have easily added about 3000 MW, if he simply followed up on her plans during her previous tenure.

Unfortunately, by the time Jayalalithaa assumed office last year, the state was already in crisis. In fact it was one of her key poll-promises, which unfortunately has come to haunt her now.

During the assembly elections, The AIADMK found it to be a great tool to hit at the DMK, but as soon as it came to power, it became its biggest headache. Even after a year’s efforts, things are not improving at all. While Jayalalithaa accused DMK for the current crisis, the latter hurls charges against the former. The truth is that both the governments hadn’t anticipated the growth in industrial and domestic demand.

Jayalalithaa was counting on the commissioning of  new plants which could have provided the state with an additional 1,950 MW by June, and by October, another 600 MW. Kudankulam would have provided at least 500 MW, if not all its 1000 MW, had it not been delayed this long. By this time, according to the government’s promise, it should have reduced the deficit by more than half.  The power cuts also should have been reduced by half.

Instead, the situation is actually worsening. On Thursday, the Deccan Chronicle reported that the state’s thermal plants have been subjected to “forced outages”. The newspaper said about 1000 MW was lost because of this outage on Wednesday alone, accounting for about 40 per cent of the power cut during peak hours. Five thermal stations, two run by the state and the other by the Centre, which together account for about 1200 MW were under repairs.

The ongoing crisis has affected the industrial and agricultural belts with the disruption of thousands of micro, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), including weaving, textile units. Latest reports indicate that it has also affected the sales of home appliances indicating a cascading effect across diverse sectors in the state.

The implications for an industrially and agriculturally vibrant Tamil Nadu are huge. For instance, a single day of protest shutdown by the industrial units in Coimbatore on 10 February has reportedly cost the industry about Rs 400 crore, out of which 20 per cent were taxes were to go to the Centre and the state.

The crisis has been a great tool for the opposition parties to attack Jayalalithaa's government. Several months ago, Karunanidhi had ridiculed her poll promise wherein she had said that she would improve the power situation within months of coming to power. A Ramadoss of the PMK had said that the state’s economy was slipping into a paralysis, while Congress leader Elangovan had used a twin handle of freebies and her unclear stand on Kudankulam to target her. The CII also had expressed its concern on the situation.

It’s nearly impossible to predict when the situation will improve. The Tamil Nadu government has asked the Centre to allocate the power that had been surrendered to the central grid, but the Centre says that it cannot because the grid in the state is not good enough to take it. According to a report in the Hindu, the Attorney General G Vahanvati told the supreme court in response to a petition by the state: “The Tamil Nadu government had not strengthened enough the grid and the State itself is responsible for the power crisis. Eight States are demanding a share in the surrendered power and we will distribute it in a manner that each grid can withstand.”

The state was so desperate that it even expressed apprehension that the Centre might distributed the surrendered power to other states which were under this distress.

To make matters worse, the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board is in deep debt and the state also has to find money for new plants as envisaged by the 12th plan. The state has to find large amounts of money for its planned capacity addition of 6000 MW between 2012 and 2017.

Anyway, AIADMK, despite its massive mandate is in an unenviable situation which unfortunately is not its making alone. However, if things do not improve dramatically, it will certainly bite back in the coming general elections, whether it happens in 2013 or 2014.

Although there is no silver bullet for the crisis, Jayalalithaa will have to certainly have to conjure up a solution before the end of the year to at least bridge the deficit. Otherwise, her poll-promise in the assembly will become her party’s nemesis.

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