Almost half of India went powerless yesterday for several hours. Three regional grids — supplying electricity to northern, eastern and north-eastern states — collapsed, resulting in a power outage in more than 20 states that severely disrupted all economic activities, brought to a standstill several essential services and adversely affected the services of over 300 trains including the Metro network. The scale of the disruption was unprecedented. And coming as it did just a day after a similar collapse of the power grid for the northern region, with almost similar consequences, it underlined once again the depressing state of the country’s power sector and its poor governance by regulators.
The immediate cause of the collapse of the three grids is that some errant states overdrew about 3,000 megawatts from the grids. A day earlier, the collapse of the northern grid was caused by states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana overdrawing power by as much as 28 per cent, 14 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively. With deficient rains in several states already forcing farmers to use more electricity to run pumps for irrigation work, the government should have anticipated that the power demand would witness a significant surge. For the last few weeks, the extent by which some states were overdrawing power from their respective grids was gradually rising. However, neither the government nor the central electricity regulator woke up to the situation and initiated the steps necessary — and mandated under the law — to discipline the errant states for overdrawing power from the grids. Indeed, many states found it more convenient to pay the penalty for overdrawing, since it was cheaper to pay the fine than buy electricity from the market.
While the regulator should take the blame for not having adequately disciplined the errant states for overdrawing power, by making the penalty more severe and deterrent, the states are no less guilty of having compromised the security of the regional grids by allowing the distribution companies to overdraw power and over-ride the system safeguards that are put in place to prevent cascading of a power outage. It is necessary that those guilty of over-riding such safeguards are brought to book to put an end to such grid mismanagement. Most of the states have also done little to control demand in the face of limited availability of electricity. Instead of seeking recourse to load-shedding to manage demand, the distribution companies have merrily flouted grid discipline with impunity. The political leadership in the states has also contributed to the power mess by not intervening when the distribution entities failed to take tough demand management steps like load-shedding. It has also not tackled the question of tariffs, particularly for farmers who are heavily subsidised in most states. Essentially, the collapse of the three regional grids is a symptom of the larger problem the country’s power sector faces. The lack of adequate reforms in power distribution has meant that this sector continues to operate under the pulls and pressures of the political leadership in states. Such pressures have prevented power distribution entities from controlling power demand or raising tariffs even when regulators have advised them to do so. Yet another power grid collapse may not be far off, if the Centre and the states together do not wake up to the need to de-politicise the power sector and enforce grid discipline.