Power-hit Assam goes for solution beyond borders

Power-hit Assam goes for solution beyond borders

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is in a tearing hurry to win back the trust of people before the Assembly elections in mid-2016. 

Also, he has to win back the trust of his party (Congress) and its vice president Rahul Gandhi, especially after the recent debacle in the bypolls, where Congress lost one of the two assembly seats it held. 

Gogoi's friend or foe in political circles in Guwahati will have no qualms to vouch that he is known for making promises easily -- at the drop of a hat -- but not for keeping them.

With 17-months left for the coming assembly elections, Gogoi has finally taken the whole of the Assam state and its constituents seriously. 

At the same time, Gogoi, as any savvy politician, knows that the burning problem in Assam continues to be the ‘BSP’ — “bijali, sadak, pani” (power, roads and drinking water).

Right now, he is focussing on electricity as the state is for long faced with power shortage. With little help from outside agencies, Gogoi is trying to find a permanent solution to the state’s perennial power shortage problem by looking for ‘out of the box’ ideas.

When an idea germinated from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Gogoi was quick to reach for it. The ADB a fortnight back in Guwahati mooted the idea saying that a permanent solution to Assam’s perennial power shortage might lie beyond the border of the country. 

Mutual understanding

The ADB’s lead energy economist Herath Gunatilake said that the international bank is planning to integrate all the nations of South Asia so that they can share power on the basis of mutual understanding.

“Demand for power varies from country to country in South Asia in different times of a year. The thought behind integrating the region is to help countries share power in their convenient time. A country having more power than its requirement at a time of the year can give it (power) to the country in need.

Assam can also play a part in this regional co-operation,” said Gunatilake. His statement comes at a time when India is looking towards neighbouring (SAARC) nations like Bhutan towards energy sufficiency. As the ADB is also supporting various power-generating agencies of these countries, the idea will be not only credible but also workable. 

In this context, the state run utilities undertaking Assam State Power Corporation officials say that decisions of this nature will be more or less made by the Centre with the ADB, of course, in co-operation with the concerned state.

They say, it is still in an idea stage and it will take some time to fructify. Even ADB's Gunatilake also said no timeframe has been set to complete this (the integration). “....it is difficult to set a timeframe now considering the complex geological condition of the region. At best, we can say is we are hopeful,” he added. 

As a sweetner to Assam, the ADB is also willing to support the state in generating renewable energy. Gunatilake said after two or three years, the bank will offer loan to Assam to generate solar power and set up small hydropower projects having capacity of generating 5-10 MW of electricity.

“The loan will be to generate a total of 250 MW hydropower by setting small hydro projects and 50 MW solar power,” he pointed out. 

While highlighting the ADB’s efforts to improve Assam’s power sector, Gunatilake pointed out that in July this year, the bank approved a $300 million loan for the state of which $45 million was for Lakwa Replacement Power Project, $5 million for capacity development and consultancy service, $50 million for distribution strengthening and $200 million for the 120MW Lower Kopili hydroelectric project. 

Improving T&D system

What's more? The bank would continue to support the power sector of Assam. According to Gunatilake, the bank has been supporting Assam’s power sector since 2003 with five loans totalling $450 million that have helped the state implement key reforms and improve transmission and distribution systems. 

Consequently, the consumer base of Assam has increased from 8.5 lakh in 2000 to 26.55 lakh in 2013 but ironically its generation capacity has fallen from 554MW to 376MW during the period. 

With the help of ADB, Gogoi government has prepared a masterplan for the power sector of Assam, which envisage investment requirement during financial year 2012 to 2022 is $3.5 billion of which $1.21 billion is for generation, $1.13 billion for transmission and $1.12 billion for distribution. 

Meanwhile, Gogoi government is hopeful of meeting his power-supply adequacy through ADB's idea -- integrating all the nations of South Asia for mutual benefit. The ADB has already done this with Nepal to overcome its crippling power shortages and export surplus power to neighbouring India.

It gave $180 million equivalent loan to Nepal, which helped its Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) finance a substantial upgrade and expansion of transmission and distribution lines and substations, allowing the transfer of up to 2,000 megawatts (MW) of power to main load centres in the Kathmandu Valley. 

After meeting the domestic needs, this network expansion will give Nepal the ability to export at least 1,200 MW of electricity to India, once a second 400 kilovolt cross-border transmission line from Bardaghat to Gorakhpur in India is complete. With six new hydropower plants due to come on stream over the next 3 to 6 years, the country expects to have a substantial wet season supply surplus for export by 2018. 

If the ADB's integration plan can be a win-win for both Nepal and Gorakhpur (in India), a similar integration plan can be tried out between Bhutan and Assam, which is what the Assam chief minister Gogoi is rooting for his constituency. 

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