The June of 2000 was a terrible time to be in Andhra Pradesh. In most parts of the states, especially in and around the capital Hyderabad, the heat was searing, the land gasped for water. Six-hour power cuts a day in domestic areas, nine hours in agricultural areas were routine, and frequently without notice. Farmers would sleep with an ear to the sound of water, so that they could scramble to turn on pumpsets to collect and store water.
A two-day industrial holiday had to be observed every week to conserve power. In the midst of all this, the Chandrababu Naidu government, in power in united Andhra Pradesh at the time, had negotiated a loan from the World Bank and upward revision of power tariff was an important element of the package.
A mass protest took place after the first tariff hike was announced in June 2000. The Congress, which was in Opposition, led the protest. Members of the Assembly went on an 11-day hunger strike in August. A big rally was called in Hyderabad on August 28, 2000, to march towards the Legislature Assembly. Thirty nine people died in caning and police firing.
Naidu did not roll back the tariff hike but he lost the state elections and stayed in political oblivion for more than 10 years after that.
Things were only marginally better when the Congress government, led by Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, came to power. Soon after, the state was bifurcated and it fell to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi to stabilise the power situation in the state. It had the capacity to supply 4,500 megawatt (Mw) of power a day. It needed at least 6,500 Mw.
One of the first Cabinet meetings Chief Minister (CM) Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao took was on the power situation. He conceded that while the general power capacity could not be increased overnight, contracted capacity could ease the power shortage. “He told us it would be expensive. But if the supply was stable, people would pay for it,” recalled Ajay Misra, special chief secretary, Department of Energy.
For a combination of generated and contracted power, the state was paying an average tariff of Rs 8 to Rs 12 per unit, the highest in the country.
There were political imperatives. The memory of the way Naidu had lost power was fresh in K C R’s mind. But he also acknowledged the two biggest fears of those opposed to the bifurcation of the state: one, that Left Wing extremists would overrun Telangana; two, the power situation would simply crumble and break down. It was necessary to disprove both these beliefs.
From November 17, 2014, the state has had zero power cuts. In the last two and a half years, the agricultural sector has been getting nine hours of assured free power. This year from November, the government is supplying free power for agriculture, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The budget naturally reflects this. Last year, Rs 44 billion was provided as power subsidy. This year, it was Rs 49 billion. The Electricity Regulatory Commission assesses it should be around Rs 59 billion next year. “The CM has said we will provide funds. We should get another Rs 10 billion after the election,” said a bureaucrat with supreme confidence.
The downside of anything free is that there is corruption and wastage. Farmers are now complaining that they don’t want free 24x7 power: because they have fitted their pumpsets with auto-starters (to accommodate the vagaries of irregular supply in the past) and regular supply meant there would be over-watering and further depletion of already low groundwater levels.
Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee farmers’ cell president M Kodanda Reddy says the scheme is only politically motivated and would not serve the real purpose at all.
“What is the point in giving more power when there is no groundwater?” asks Reddy.
According to sources in the Telangana groundwater department, its level witnessed an average rise of 4.46 metres below ground level by end-October, compared to May due to a normal rainfall in 17 districts of the southern state during monsoon.
“However, there are still some districts like Medak, which have registered very low groundwater levels. If the power supply is given round-the-clock, the water levels by the end of the Rabi season in March 2019 would go down further,” says Reddy.
But small and marginal farmers in Warangal are happy: regular power and water means not just better crops but overall bankability and the value of land rising exponentially.
In Sircilla last year, K C R’s portraits were worshipped with milk poured on top of them. K C R’s son and heir, K T Rama Rao, is now contesting the Sircilla Assembly seat and is likely to romp home.