In this Idea Exchange moderated by Deputy Editor Subhomoy Bhattacharjee, Union Power, Coal, New and Renewable Energy Minister Piyush Goyal says dialogue and Modi’s style of functioning can help resolve issues and bring together dissenting voices
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: You have power, coal, renewable energy under your charge. You have NGOs saying that two of these should be out of business and one should be in business. What are your views on these sectors?
I am willing to engage in a dialogue with everyone. Today, there was a file with a comment that trade unions oppose this issue and I said, ‘no problem’. I wrote on the file, ‘please invite trade unions for a discussion’. So I am open to all viewpoints. I don’t have a misplaced notion that I know it all. I am clear that on these three subjects I am a novice; I am happy to learn from everybody. At the same time, there are certain things which never get highlighted. Take the case of the Uttarakhand flash flood tragedy. In a review meeting, the company that operates the Tehri dam explained to me how the Bhagirathi river, on which the dam stands, was able to stall a huge inflow of water, which otherwise would have flown down to Rishikesh and Haridwar. So had the dam not been there, the water coming down would have completely wiped out Rishikesh and Haridwar. This is something I didn’t know. So I asked them why they hadn’t educated people about this. All these years, we have only heard bad things about dams and hydro-power. They said, it is in public domain, and a lot of people have talked about it. I said, ‘when the tragedy happened, I was in the Opposition; I was looking at the events very carefully and yet, did not know about this’. Thus, there is always another dimension to such issues.
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D K Singh: What do you do with colleagues like Uma Bharti who have been campaigning against dams?
We all have viewpoints. We met under her chairmanship to discuss water resources, environment and power related issues. We are working seamlessly across ministries. My three ministries are completely synergised. The three secretaries and I sit down and sort out issues and get things done in real time. Even across ministries, if I am sitting here and you flag an issue related to environment, I would pick up the phone, call up the minister concerned and sort it out. Or I will take an appointment to meet him. Uma Bharti met me and said that she wanted to discuss the Ganga plan. I went to her office with my secretary. It was a pleasant meeting. We were all on the same page. Who can deny that rivers should flow perennially? However, I flagged the issue to the Environment secretary. I said, ‘let’s take a more realistic view, a more aggregate view’. And they were all in agreement. If there is a dialogue, then there is no issue that can’t be resolved. Having said that, there will always be voices which may differ. But as they say, pancho ki rai se we will move forward. Sarpanch Narendra Modi hain, aur unka style complete consensus building ka hai.
Archna Shukla: Immediately after taking charge, you went to Gujarat to study the power model there. So what are the learnings you have come back with? Do you plan to implement them?
I had gone there as a student, to understand what they did differently to successfully turn around loss-making utilities. Converting a Rs 2,500 crore loss into Rs 500-odd crore profit! Percentage wise, the increase in power tariff in Gujarat during the last 12 years has been the least, compared to any other large state. The largest benefit comes from separate feeder lines for agriculture. That was a game-changing idea. We are creating a situation where the state has a shortage because there is an indiscriminate use of power. By segregating the feeder, you are able to do better grid management. The stability of grid improves, the subsidy on agriculture could be well defined, and so you don’t have to burden the consumers. They could also make sure that residential areas get 24 hours power because a lot of the wasted power lines went to homes, and the state government came down in a heavy handed manner on power theft and ensured that everyone paid bills. I have a situation today where I have surplus power which I can’t sell, because the states don’t have the ability to buy that power, give it it to consumers and collect money. Look at Rajasthan — in five years, Rs 55,000 crore additional loss. They have allowed rampant theft, they have not revised the power tariff, which should be the right way. But Gujarat did that. They did a gradual and graded tariff correction, whenever required. They stopped power theft, ensured utilities functioned honestly, that the utilities were fiscally prudent and that way, the generation capacity was tripled.
Sunil Jain: There have been bailouts in the power sector once every 10 years. You had one last year. How do you plan to deal with that? In Delhi, there are Rs 25,000 crore of dues to power companies. The power regulator just refuses to pass it on.
I don’t have any control over the state administration or the electricity regulator of Delhi. I do not have any direct powers. However, being sensitive to the concerns of the common man, I stepped in after the storm. But they said that they do not need any help. It took pleading and prodding to find the problem. I put the Central government machinery to assist them. And you can see what happened. How Delhi was transformed in spite of the worst possible storm. Demand has shot up to historic highs. Despite the fact that typically such projects would have taken six to eight months to complete, and we would have had to suffer more outages, it was completed in record time. One of my targets is to create a new line in two weeks, which I have already inspected. They got that done in a record two weeks. It’s not my responsibility, but I am sensitive to the needs of the people. We have to completely insulate Delhi like Mumbai, so that you don’t have to use generators or inverters. As regards Financial Restructuring Plan (FRP), it was a failed scheme to begin with.
Sunil Jain: So, will you scrap FRPs?
I will not scrap anything. There is a process. Let it continue. We may try and improvise it. I am working to engage with states to see if they come forward with proposals which I can support as well as learn from others’ experiences. Maharashtra has been very successful in controlling power theft. When I was making my presentation to the Prime Minister, I was delighted to learn that he liked what Maharashtra had done to control power theft. If states come forward and say that they need help in divesting non-core assets or set up separate feeder lines, I will be happy to work as a bridge between the discoms, banks and state governments.
Surabhi: The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) promised a lot of steps on electricity during state elections. As the Power minister, do you think any of that is possible?
The AAP had said, ‘we’ll stop power theft, we’ll improve efficiency, we’ll do CAG audit and recover money from discoms’. They came to power and did nothing, knowing well that they did not intend staying in government. It’s politics of the worst kind — to promise populist steps and then run away from government.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: Is the government going to allow the private sector to come into coal?
There have been success stories in the public sector and disasters in the private sector. So I don’t subscribe to the mindset that the only reform or restructuring of the coal sector involves privatisation or breaking up Coal India. At the end of the day, ownership does not determine the success or failure of any corporation. It’s leadership, integrity and efficiency of the leadership that does…We have started, for example, the process of auctioning coal mines through a transparent, completely competitive mechanism that is open to public scrutiny. As regards to mining through the private sector, we will have to wait and see what will be the implication, how it will operate and pan out. We are importing coal. We have to quickly replace those imports with domestically mined coal and every avenue that can help us to reduce our dependence on imported coal should be considered with an open mind.
Subhash Narayan: What happens to the appointments to chiefs of various PSUs, like NHPC which has been hanging for the last three years, CIL has also lost its chief.
It’s a matter of deep concern. When I saw the files and records that have no heads in many of the important PSUs…I’m planning shortly to move a Cabinet note to allow greater participation of fresh management experts. As I’ve said, we want leaders from different fields to come in and provide leadership to the PSUs. I made an appeal through the media for well-meaning people, people with high integrity and efficiency and management skills to come forward and offer their services. I know the government cannot pay the kind of salaries that private sector can give, but please come forward, join the selection process we are trying to open it up for wider participation. Let’s hope we can attract some good talent to come in and run these PSUs.
Coomi Kapoor: What happened to achche din? How long will they take to come?
Achche din to aa gaye. Itna proactive governance, itna transparency, itni honest government aapko kahan mili itne saalon mein? I haven’t taken a day off for my family since I became a Union minister.
Shobhana Subramanian: Your government didn’t take a decision on increasing the gas prices.
This is outside my domain. That is for the Petroleum Minister to respond to. I am waiting for the decision on gas pricing before I try to sort out issues of the gas sector. You must bear in mind that none of these power plants set up with gas as a fuel has been given any assurance by the government regarding supply of gas at any particular price. So the obligation is not with the Central government. It is a business decision taken by the gas producers.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: Your government has come in with a different way of doing business, different way of working, there have been interesting gaps that have been created. For example, the Planning Commission does not exist.
The Planning Commission very much exists. We have interacted with Secretary, Planning Commission. But I do not see any reason for appointments to be made in a tearing hurry. We will get the best people in for the job.
Rakesh Sinha: You spoke of power situations in cities, but when you look at smaller towns, or tier II and tier III cities, the power situation is very grim. Is there a plan on the table to deal with this situation?
It’s very important for me to address this issue. We are not working for one section of the society. We are committed to give 24×7 power to everyone in the country. When we say that, it’s not as if it’s only for the cities and not for the towns, villages or border areas. I am looking at all occupants and off-grid solutions for everyone. It’s a great learning experience for me. I did not know P of power or C of coal before I came to this ministry. And sometimes that’s good. When I was handling my industry, my father once suggested that I send my nephew, who was only 16 at the time, to roam around the factory for a few days, and said that the insights he will give me will be far more telling than what I would have thought of in an entire year, because “you’re so structured seeing the same thing day in and day out”. In the border areas of Rajasthan, diesel is transported through trucks, causing severe environmental pollution. We are looking at off-grid options and innovative solutions — wind and solar energy combos or combos of coal, wind and solar. Intermediate towns have the problem of transmission grid being weak and also simultaneously supplying to villages and agricultural land. They have extremely poor cabling system within the town, and of course, power theft is rampant. It will have to be a peoples’ movement. I appeal to people through you. If they demand 24×7 power, it will be easier for us to upgrade power lines. We can only operate through the states. I cannot force my view on say, Ghaziabad. I can only operate through the state.
Sunil Jain: Is there an example where you have had a state government coming to you for some advice?
Rajasthan. When I became a minister, Vasundhara Raje, the Chief Minister, said, ‘I want you to take me up as a pilot’.
D K Singh: Many informed people support the Prime Minister’s prescription of bitter medicines for the economy, but as a senior BJP leader, are you concerned about its impact on the Assembly elections?
There are certain realities in life which we have inherited. We are confident that we will be able to mitigate it to a large extent. But we have to be conscious that we cannot wish away these realities. Newspapers have spoken of thousands of crores of backlog in subsidies and unaccounted liabilities that the new government has inherited. We have inherited shortfalls in revenues. And then there are so many things you don’t know. In every meeting during the last one month, I’ve heard that we should support clean energy, support hydel, support solar. I said, ‘great, I have some money at my disposal to support this’. But then I found that some Rs 11-12,000 crore collected over the years and put into the Consolidated Fund of India is all gone. So that money, which should have been used to support renewable energy, is not there anymore. It’s actually a mirage. Now we’ll have to make up for all these bills. I am going to ask the Finance Minister to support these missions. These wounds are coming out and surfacing everyday.
Sunil Jain: You said states have not raised power tariff. You think we can see BJP states raising tariffs quickly and to the necessary amounts?
We’ll have to address it with each state in partnership with them, come through a resolution state by state, draw up a road map, see who has what ability to support any transformation programme. I disagree completely that tariff increase is the only solution. I believe inefficiencies cannot be passed on to the consumer. We have a situation where large power plants are either idling, or working at sub-optimal capacities.
Appu Esthose Suresh : You recently had an Intelligence Bureau (IB) report that alleged that NGOs brought the growth down by 2-3 percentage. Do you have the same view on these instruments of state like CAG, CVC, CBI even for bonafide decisions? Do you think the instruments of state also brought the growth back?
Very soon we will have to amend the definition of force majeure to include, along with act of god, the act of government. It’s a sad commentary on all of us, and I have the belief that under Narendra Modi’s visionary leadership, we will be able to change the paradigm so that people don’t have to come to us and complain about our inefficiency or inability to act. The last one month we have worked to take real time, inter-ministerial decisions. I don’t know if you are aware, but Steel Minister Narendra Singh Tomar tapped my shoulders at a Cabinet meeting two weeks ago, and said, ‘I have to discuss something’. Prakash Javedekar said, ‘I will also come’. So, we, three ministers, discussed bilateral and trilateral issues. That’s the kind of government that each of us are sincerely working on — real time, seamless, taking decisions — and I am sure we will be able to set things right faster that you could have imagined.
Transcribed by Arup Roychoudhury & Suyash Gabriel