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Subir Roy: Who cares for Bhel?


Subir Roy  |  New Delhi 

The arithmetic of political survival forced the minority to abandon its plans to disinvest a 10 per cent stake in Bharat Heavy Electricals, the same way as forced the imposition of President's rule in Bihar.
In the process the government's bid to earn a tidy bit of revenue failed and the Left's bid to derail disinvestment in profit-making PSU navaratnas succeeded.
The winner is the Left, which has managed to secure its support base among a privileged few""central public sector employees.
The government is a loser but not seriously, as it has secured what it wants foremost""remain in power. The real loser in this whole stand-off has been Bhel, which remains deprived of what it acutely needs""a vision, a governance structure to deliver it, and an ownership structure to enable it.
Bhel needs a new vision because it has fulfilled one mandate but has now to go on serving another. It made the country self-sufficient in power equipment but the age of being content with attaining self-sufficiency is over.
The age of the best national companies becoming globally competitive and going out to win the world has arrived. It is doubtful if the Left has a clue to how this can be achieved.
An article in the mouthpiece People's Democracy castigates the media for its stand on Bhel disinvestment and strongly refutes the suggestion that the Left has dual standards, one for West Bengal and another for the nation.
It is the loss-making and unredeemable units that are being closed there, it says. An amicable way to resolve the dilemma over disinvestment can be to let the Left run all the profitable central PSUs.
That will surely make them sick and then they can be sold off without any controversy.
The article in question goes into the whole issue of the need to support national companies and criticises (another state-owned company) for rejecting Bhel's bid for supercritical boilers for Sipat.
In passing, it asks rhetorically: would have been able to reject Bhel's bid so easily if it had been owned by Reliance? This is splendid.
The best way to promote national harmony can be to hand over Bhel to Reliance, considering the cosy relationship the Left, with the exception of Gurudas Dasgupta, has had with it.
The fact is the Left leaders have an inadequate understanding of technology, which holds the key to the future of Bhel.
West Bengal lost out on the software boom because all that its leaders knew was that computers were untouchables as they took away jobs.
The issue of supercritical (over 500 MW), which Bhel does not have, stands at the core of defining a vision for Bhel.
The article asks why rejected the tried and tested supercritical that Babcock Borsig, Bhel's partner, was offering. Is it time to ask, why does Bhel not have supercritical or, more realistically, what can it do so that it can have such down the road?
Big players are easy about licensing to a fledgling player which is no threat. This and the politics of the cold war enabled Bhel to get all the it needed till lately.
But Bhel is itself quite big and a challenger to global power equipment manufacturers. It will still get for the Indian market because those leaders need a share of the dynamic Indian market and the best way is to partner Bhel.
But there is a catch in this. The agreements prevent Bhel from competing for business on the home turf of those leaders.
In the post-WTO scenario, the global power equipment market has been deregulated and there is renewed demand for power equipment in the US, post-brownouts.
This is a golden opportunity for Bhel. If Larsen & Toubro can build high reactors for the US, why can Bhel not build power plants?
There is a further threat. Some providers of the past will not sell Bhel their for anywhere. A case in point is the unwillingness of ABB to sell control and instrumentation any more to Bhel after the old agreement expired.
Thankfully, there is a way out. Bhel has now tied up with MAX Controls, a far smaller player, to use its and most critically give Bhel time to assimilate and develop its own
In the past, Bhel was simply not big enough to invest in developing greenfield It should not reinvent the wheel but buy and improve on existing the way the Japanese had done in their early phase of global expansion.
But a time comes when you have to be on your own. Bhel can get what it wants from small niche companies.
As they are often in financial trouble, Bhel's strategy has to be to buy up such carefully chosen affordable companies. This requires nimble-footed commercial decision making, which can come only from an independent board, not bureaucrats and politicians.
If backdoor MNC entry is a fear, let the government retain a golden share.

First Published: Wed, July 13 2005. 00:00 IST