Odisha's ambitious plan to install a power transmission system immune to cyclones and natural disasters has come a cropper, thanks to funds constraints and lack of interest from the state energy department to pursue the plan.
As a result, millions of people in vast swatches of area in economically thriving towns like Puri, Bhubaneswar, Cuttack and villages surrounding them still remain without electricity and the services linked to it such as water supply and telecommunication, even after five days of Fani, a summer storm of high severity that hit the coast near Puri last week.
Power infrastructure being a prime casualty to vagaries of recurring cyclones, the then state energy secretary had announced the plan to implement Disaster Resilient Power Supply (DRPS) scheme immediately after Phailin, another devastating cyclone which pummelled the south Odisha coast in 2013.
The disaster resilient power system for Ganjam, the worst affected district in Phailin was estimated to cost Rs 1,820 crore. The project was to be part financed by Asian Development Bank (ADB) with a contribution of Rs 615 crore.
Going beyond the drawing board to combat Phailin like future disasters, the state government had planned an underground cabling system for the vulnerable coastal zones as well as the State Capital Region Improvement in Power System (SCRIPS), which aimed to ensure unfettered power supply to Bhubaneswar-Cuttack twin city.
But after five years into hare-brained planning, it took a 'Fani' to bust the myths and expose the chinks in Odisha's brittle power sector infrastructure.
But the scheme was put in the back burner following exit of the then energy secretary from the department, said a source.
But another official blames funds constraints for lack of progress on DRPS. “Underground cabling work has fallen by the wayside because of fund constraints. The cost of underground cabling is six to seven times that of laying conventional conductors. We had planned the scheme to reinforce our vulnerable coastal zones from recurring cyclonic storms. After initial enquiries, the interest of multilateral donor agencies has evaporated. We are let down by funds”, he lamented.
Similarly SCRIPS, one of the key components of Odisha's power system overhaul, too, has a patchy record. Only 40 per cent of the scheme is completed. After floundering to raise foreign capital, the state government decided to finance SCRIPS from its budget outlays.
Apart from underground cabling, DRPS prescribed the use of H poles, which is used by the Railways for overhead transmission of electricity to locomotives.
H poles are stable and multi-purpose poles made of two steel joists held apart by a slab of concrete in the middle, generally found in South Australia. These can withstand high-velocity, squally winds triggered by cyclones unlike traditional electric poles.
That the Railway services in Odisha could be immediately restored after the cyclone and their electrification network didn’t suffer any damage while conventional poles toppled like matchsticks all around during the cyclone speaks volumes about the efficacy of these special type poles.
An expert in power transmission also recommends use of cyclone resistant T poles. “Kerala and Gujarat have already T poles (made in India) to useful effects. With a width up to 75 metres, T poles can overcome severe climatic conditions. They are a better bet than underground cabling where maintenance work can be cumbersome”, he said.
Back in October 2013 when Phailin, a very severe tropical cyclone struck Gopalpur, it left an enormous scale of devastation, especially in the power sector. The losses to the sector were estimated in upwards of Rs 1000 crore and it took colossal rebuilding efforts to restore power in Ganjam, the worst suffering district.
Odisha is now beset with the challenge of rebuilding its crumbling power infrastructure post Fani devastation. Of the 156,000 electric poles wracked by the cyclone, a third of them need to be replaced.
The damage to the state's power infrastructure is worked out at Rs 1054.36 crore but this excludes nearly 50 per cent of Puri where the assessment is yet to be done. More than 3.3 million power consumers in seven districts- Puri, Khurda, Cuttack, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Jajpur and Ganjam have been hit by the Fani cyclone.
Bhubaneswar has 316,000 electrical customers but power has been restored for only 7600. “We are mobilizing personnel from Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and also from central PSUs- PGCIL and NTPC”, said a source at energy department.