The Germans extended handsome assistance to NLC through her development bank, KfW and Rheinbraun, among the global leaders in open cast mining, to develop the mines. The Russians provided the technology and equipment for 600 MW of power generation. The copious availability of power helped the state reach electricity to villages. Over the next three decades, NLC expanded into a large integrated mining cum power project with power capacity of 2490 MW.
Soon after the launch of IE in March 1968 I had a couple of interesting interactions. The first was with S Swayambu, then Chairman, Heavy Electricals (India) Ltd. Those were the heydays of the Swatantra Party with Rajaji
hyper-critical of the commanding heights assigned to the public sector. Swayambu provided a very strong defence: “in the 1950s, private companies in the power sector were content to produce small capacity motors, electric bulbs and the like, involving short gestation and low capital. Investments in heavy electrical equipment required large investments running to several crores of rupees and long gestation of over a decade. Did the country have an alternative?” he asked. I was quite impressed with this logic and focussed on public sector units.
They took BHEL to great heights
In June 1968, we presented in the Glimpses column on current news on the economy a short note on Madras Fertilizers not ordering the boiler on BHEL-Tiruchi, just a couple of hundred miles away. Within a week of the release of the issue, I received a letter from V Krishnamurthy (VK), General Manager, BHEL. He referred to the comments and invited me to visit Tiruchi to have a look at the facilities and also to know the reason for missing the order. I promptly followed up and spent a couple of days at BHEL-T in the following week. VK ensured a tight programme: visits to different sections of the sprawling factory, meetings with the head of finance, S V S Raghavan (who later became another prized business leader), M R Naidu, head of production, Cavinathan and V R Deenadayalu of the sales department. The following day I spent close to three hours with VK. He pointed to the continuing preference for imported equipment to the neglect of indigenous equipment.
Even while the corporation faced resistance from Indian utilities and policymakers, the
dynamic team at the helm of BHEL boldly ventured outside the country. It sold a few boilers in Malaysia well before its first boiler was ignited at the Ennore thermal power station in 1971. The company maintained its thrust to export equipment to a number of developing countries in Asia and Africa. Present CMD B P Rao confidently refers to target a 15 per cent share in turnover for exports.
I was totally stumped over the passion and the energy of the team led by VK. In quick time, VK-SVS Raghavan duo worked on the merger of HEIL with BHEL. With powerful communication, PR and advertising, BHEL led the public sector to commanding heights through the 1970s through a string of renowned collaborations. In quick time, BHEL expanded the range of products and capacity for production. Think of the quick upscaling from the 30-60 MW sets in Bhopal to 100-110 MW, to 200-250 MW and subsequently 500 MW sets that also powered nuclear power plants! BHEL made the country self-sufficient in power equipment in quick time. It was specially welcome in those years of severe foreign exchange shortage.
I also met with dreamers like H N Sethna who headed the atomic energy department and visited power plants at Kalpakkam and Tarapur and the sprawling facilities of the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre at Chembur. At MAPS, then Director M R Srinivasan was confident of the country building over the next three decades before the new millennium, 10,000 MW of nuclear power. (Sadly, over four decades since, the capacity is less than half of what he had dreamt). But it did kindle my interest. I followed up by visiting nuclear power plants in the UK and discussing the pre-eminence of Framatome in Paris. I got the convincing answer from a director of Framatome : “France did not have access to fossil fuels; like coal as Germany or North Sea oil as the UK. We focused on nuclear power that accounts for over 75 per cent of our power generation. We ensure total safety.” Unlike the US, Russia or more recently, Japan, France and Belgium that get the lion’s share of power from nuclear stations have been free from accidents.
The evolution of NTPC
In January 1978 I flew to Hyderabad and joined the media team taken to Ramagundam. Prime Minister Morarji Desai laid the foundation for the Ramagundam super thermal power station. The brilliant team at the helm of NTPC introduced several innovative concepts like the merry go round (MGR) system for conveying coal from the mines to the power plants. The Janata government pursued the concept of setting up of large capacity pit head power stations at Singrauli, Korba, Ramagundam and Farakka, each with 2000 MW capacity. NTPC, then headed by the brilliant technocrat D V Kapur with P S Bami as finance director, did a remarkable job of activating such large capacity in quick time. Imagine the capacity of 8000 MW added in about 5-6 years with handsome funding from World Bank, substantially expanding power capacity in the Central sector! NTPC evolved in quick time as one of the largest power utilities in the world. Today it has a capacity of around 42,464 MW.
I could relate the evolution in sophistication and range through my experience visiting large capacity power plants in Europe. The GE Turbines facility at Rugby, the AEG factory at Frankfurt and of Siemens in Munich, Germany, and other heavy engineering plants in developed countries provided the base for comparison. I am happy that over time the levels of sophistication created in India compare well with those in developed countries. Today not just BHEL but a few other large capacity power equipment manufacturers have emerged in collaboration with well-known global manufacturers. The missing factor is the absence of dynamism on the part of planners and leaders to conceive and execute large additions to power capacity in quick time and a greater focus on R&D.
The three successive five year plans from 1992 to 2007 witnessed severe shortfalls, of more than 50 per cent, in additions to capacity related to targets. The UPA I and II governments under Dr Manmohan Singh did improve this record. The tenth plan 2007-12 added over 55,000 MW which was more than the capacity added in the previous three plans; still it was much short of the target set of 78,000 MW. With huge increase in demand, there have been serious shortages in states like Tamil Nadu and AP, which suffer extensive power cuts.
Ultra mega power projects: poor record
The UPA government conceived the ambitious ultra mega power projects, each with capacity of 4000 MW. But the enthusiasm in conceiving this grand project has not been accompanied by the capacity to execute it. Thus, nearly a decade after conceiving the grand plan, delivery has been extremely poor.
Quite disappointingly, the prime minister with his clear vision on urgency of power development has been rendered helpless by his team-mates. Power for all has remained just a slogan for long. The task for the new government is to make this a reality during its tenure. It should also endeavour to generate and deliver it at costs that are competitive. In the present regime, high cost of power and severe shortage render Indian enterprises uncompetitive.