Unscheduled power cuts in Tamil Nadu over the last few weeks brought the close to two-month-old DMK government under critical glare. Power cuts have always been less frequent in Chennai as compared to the rest of the state, partly due to better infrastructure and also perhaps because complaints by the city’s chattering classes have a way of getting amplified, as they did this time too. The outages created an angry buzz as they affected a whole lot of people working from home due to the pandemic. Past DMK regimes have had a history of power mismanagement, so the party became an easy dartboard for mockers saying the Rising Sun and blackouts are inseparable. But that was a little unfair for a party that has just about taken guard for a fresh innings. The matter figured in the state Assembly, with the AIADMK trying to pin the blame on power minister Senthil Balaji, who lobbed the ball back like a pro, saying his predecessor’s sleeping at the wheel for nine months without undertaking any maintenance was directly responsible for the mess. Balaji promised to restore normalcy in 10 days and on Tuesday announced that there will be no further load-shedding across the state.
Balaji appears to have acquitted himself well for now, but knows he has a daunting challenge ahead. For, the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board is sitting on a humongous debt burden of Rs 1.59 lakh crore, borrowed at rates between 9.6% and 13%, at a time when the cost of credit had actually dived. Its annual interest alone works out to about Rs 15,000 crore. As of now, his ministry has renegotiated interest servicing and pared it down to Rs 13,000 crore for this fiscal. But the pragmatic way forward would be to retire all costly debt and replace it with low cost borrowing from alternative sources besides plugging revenue leakage and making the utility financially viable.
Balaji also intends to revive viable power projects conceived during the erstwhile DMK rule. But with the world moving towards renewable energy sources to address climate change, he could become the early bird to make course corrections to step away from dirty energy if he thinks out of the box. Will he?