Punjab to become Pak’s power bank? Amarinder recycles old Akali plan
Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh recently surprised Punjab’s political circuit with an ambitious plan to sell surplus power to neighbouring Pakistan and Nepal.
The move is surprising primarily because it is a U-turn by the Congress on a proposal that had initially been floated by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine in the state.
Punjab, a power bank
Amarinder has sought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support on 22 April, arguing that it would be in the economic interest of the cash-crunched state.
Pointing to the 1000 MW surplus power availability in Punjab as the internal demand has been met, Amarinder said the sale of power to Pakistan or Nepal would save citizens of the state from the burden of any extra taxes and also save consumers of electricity from the extra burden of fixed cost of power generating units.
According to him, since Punjab shares its border with Pakistan and the Goindwal Sahib thermal power plant is situated close to the border, it would not be difficult for the state to supply power to Pakistan on a continuous basis.
He went on to say that Punjab would be happy to supply electricity to Nepal also, which intends to meet its power shortfall by purchasing it from India if the government of India agrees.
Amarinder has asked Modi to advise the union power ministry to favourably consider the state government’s proposal while pointing that the Punjab State Power Corporation Ltd (PSPCL) has in the recent past offered supply of power in tender inquiries floated for the purpose but has not been successful.
It was former deputy chief minister and SAD president Sukhbir Badal who had initially mooted the idea during his visit to Pakistan in 2013. The plan was to export surplus power to Pakistan from the union power ministry's power grid in Amritsar.
Sukhbir's proposal had followed the inclination showed by India to export 500 MW to Pakistan during the visit of a delegation led by union power ministry joint secretary Reeta Acharya in June 2013. But the plan never materialised because of strained relations between the two countries and the subsequent polls in both.
Ironically, the Congress at that time had termed Sukhbir's proposal as 'irresponsible', pointing that the state government should first fulfill power needs of its own people before extending support to the neighbouring country.
Congress leader Sunil Jakhar and Rajinder Kaur Bhattal had reportedly pointed to the huge gap between demand and supply of power in Punjab.
“The revival of the proposal when translated into political terms means that the Congress accepts that Akalis did make Punjab a power surplus state during their regime,” a political observer in Ludhiana said.
Taking the credit
Meanwhile, after Amarinder's move, the SAD leadership is taking credit for the idea and has come out and publically appreciated the Congress government for deciding to take the same line on power export to Pakistan as done by the SAD-BJP government besides hard selling the good work done in the power sector during SAD-BJP rule to attract investment into the state.
Senior Akali leaders and MPs Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and Balwinder Singh Bhundur have reminded the Congress that the decision to export power to Pakistan had been taken by their government, for which they had already approached the Centre for the same.
"As such there is no need for the new state government to approach the Centre afresh on this issue. All it needs to do is renew talks held on this issue with the Centre and take them forward to a logical conclusion," they said.
The Akali leaders have pointed out that Sukhbir had initiated the exercise to export power to Pakistan during a meeting with Pakistan's Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharief in 2012 and the Pakistan cabinet had approved a proposal to purchase power from India in 2014.
"Following this talks have taken place between the power ministries of both countries. Recent unwanted incidents at the border including the Pathankot terror strike have put a spanner in the works. However talks as well as power export to Pakistan from Amritsar as decided in the preliminary talks could be started as part of confidence building measures between both countries," the leaders said.
Dhindsa and Bhundur said Punjab has reached a stage from being a power strapped state in 2007 to being power surplus now due to the efforts made by Sukhbir.
"The state was even able to transfer the benefits of bringing efficiencies into the system by offering power at Rs 5 per unit to new industries. It is appreciable that the new government is trying to capitalise on these efforts and has during a recent interaction with industrialists in Mumbai highlighted the cheap and reliable power on offer in Punjab. More such efforts should be made to continue the development narrative initiated by the previous SAD-BJP government," the Akali leaders added.
On the other hand, the main opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has demanded a release of a white paper on the present electricity production and demand in the state. Party leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira has castigated the government for being unable to meet the electricity requirement in state while talking about selling electricity to Pakistan and Nepal.
Khaira said that Punjab is an agriculture based state and the paddy growers need 24 hour uninterrupted supply of power, but in the peak season farmers are provided only eight hours of supply. He said that many small villages and remote areas (Dhanis) are still deprived of power.
“The India-Pakistan ties are not in good shape and both countries have many differences. At this time, selling electricity to Pakistan does not make sense,” Khaira said.
Many unanswered questions
There are several other questions when it comes to Amarinder’s proposal. The very first is that of setting up the expensive transmission infrastructure and network.
“The cost is huge and one wonders whether both the sides would agree to it. Then there are security issues. With the relations between the two countries often coming under strain, one cannot rule out damage to the transformers and other infrastructure near the borders whenever there are hostilities,” a senior media person says.
There is no policy framework, he adds, that allows export of power to a foreign country by a state. Secondly, questions are bound to be asked as to why Punjab is not offering power to the states facing power scarcity within India instead of offering it to an often 'hostile' neighbour.
Another issue, he asks, is what makes the government so sure that it will profit from this venture as Pakistan would bargain hard to get power cheaper? “As of now, Amarinder's announcement of giving power to people in the state at Rs 5 per unit has already put the power distribution set up under tremendous constraint,' he pointed.
Perhaps this is Amarinder’s way of projecting himself as a tall leader by taking the moral high road. The implementation of such a plan would also allow him to speak to Modi on Indo-Pak affairs while being the chief minister of a state.