Power crisis: Heart of the darkness

Mizanur Rahman Shelley
THE ongoing power crisis is teaching us new lessons. “Load-shedding,” taking place with the obstinacy of recurring decimals, is telling us anew that everything is transient; neither light nor darkness last for ever.

On account of resolute intervention by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina the rigours of power shortage have relaxed in recent weeks. Earlier, in the sphere of power-generated light, the interval between darkness and light was one hour.

“Load-shedding,” a polite way of confessing that supply of power falls short of demand, has become a way of life. In cities and towns it is disrupting life in its various aspects. Economy, agriculture, industry, education and social exchange — nothing escapes its inexorable grip. Although, following more efficient load-management, the crisis seemed to have eased a few days ago. However, the situation appears to have worsened again. The problem is that the root-cause of crisis largely remains untouched.

Statistics vary, but the bottom-line is transparently clear; there is a real shortage of electricity in comparison to demand. According to oft-quoted statements by concerned authorities the current demand for electricity is more than 6,000 MW a day while the supply varies between some 3,800 MW to 4,200 MW.

In the rural areas the demand stands at some 2,400 MW per day but the Rural Electrification Board (REB) can supply barely half of that. In the capital city, the demand stands at 1,400 MW but the supply is an unsatisfactory 600 to 650 MW everyday. There is no doubt that this disturbing shortage of power threatens to turn the summer of 2010 into a summer of distressing discontent.

Power shortage and too frequent power cuts wreak havoc in people’s lives. One great dimension of citizens’ distress is writ large in the crisis of water. In various parts of major cities and towns pitifully inadequate supply of water is creating an intolerable situation. Insufficient supply of safe drinking water is creating grave hazards for public health. Water-borne diseases are causing distress to people, especially the children and the old.

In the rural areas, inadequacy of water creates problems in irrigation. Diversion of power to the rural areas by increased load-shedding in the urban areas may not provide enough water for irrigation at the time of heightened agricultural activities. The problem is inadequate supply of fuel, especially natural gas, which Bangladesh has in reserve.

Mr. Azimuddin Ahmad, former energy secretary and chairman of the Gas Utilisation Committee (2002), has analysed the core of the problem. In his words “a serious gas crisis exists today, which has automatically resulted in causing the power crisis as well. This crisis need not have occurred in the first place. Five gas fields have considerable resources, RR of at least 10 TCF where output need augmentation.”

He further observes: “The Petrobangla fields having more than three times the gas reserves are today producing less than the International Oil Companies, (IOC) operated fields. Had the outputs of the very high-reserve fields like Titas and Habiganj been augmented as had been proposed by the Gas Utilisation Committee in its report of 2002 Bangladesh today would have had surfeit and not paucity of gas.”

Mr. Ahmad adds: “The cost of alternative sources, such as diesel and furnace oil, is indeed a factor for serious consideration.” He also maintains that use of nuclear power is very difficult (technically as well as financially) to implement. He further holds: “It also involves high installation costs and operational hazards.”

In this connection, Mr. Ahmad recollects the terrible experience of the Chernobyl meltdown, which cost 65,000 lives and a loss of $250 billion in a relatively sparsely populated region. He forcefully asserts: “A disaster of this magnitude in Bangladesh would result in loss of lives in millions and economically push the country back to the Stone Age.”

The other primary fuel for generation of electricity, coal, offers safer and cheaper prospects. However, the debate about the method of mining coal makes the problem thorny. In addition, the time that would be inevitably needed to exploit and use Bangladesh’s plentiful coal deposits will create an unacceptable time-gap in solving the power crisis with desirable speed.

Why did we fail to solve the gas and resultant power crisis in the country? The reasons for the crises in supply of gas and power need to be clearly identified and understood. Only then can the present power crisis be tackled on an enduring basis.

The heart of the darkness is in the manner we manage public procurement and purchase. As in other spheres of government, multi-layer decision-making leads to unending passing of the buck. Decision-making becomes transformed into a virtual slow-motion movie. Pressing problems remain unresolved while life moves on with relentless rapidity. Problems pile up and become more complicated. There is no doubt that the blame does not lie entirely with a rigid and outdated bureaucracy. Inexperienced and indecisive political managers also share a large part of the responsibility for lack of timely action.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hit the nail on the head when addressing officials in the energy ministry she forcefully underscored the necessity of short-cutting the red-tape. She directed the officials to find out ways of making quick decisions and taking rapid actions to solve the power crisis without delay. The question is whether timely and positive response can be obtained from the system as it stands now.

The prime minister and her colleagues have rightly stressed the failure of earlier governments. That failure was, to a great extent, a failure of political leadership. Narrow political interest combined with vested business interests and indifference to the cumulative problems in the power and energy sub-sectors contributed to the deepening of crises in these areas. Nevertheless, the weakening of the bureaucracy and attendant indecisiveness was also responsible, in a large measure, for the situation.

As the final report of the Bangladesh Democracy Programme: Assessment (USAID), Bureau of Private Enterprise, June 1992) observes: “During the Pakistan and Bangladesh periods, however, several changes occurred, many of them synergistically reinforcing each other and all of them diminishing significantly the capacity of the bureaucracy. This trend produced a bureaucracy not very suited to a democratic polity, in which an elected government is expected to determine policy and the bureaucracy is supposed to implement it.”

The result of all this is indecisiveness and evident lack of courage and positive attitude among administrators in the public sector. A study by the Civil Service Training Academy (COTA) in the mid-eighties, analysing 484 files and cases, revealed that the average time taken for national policy making was 289 days, for policy implementation the figure was 311 days. It needed 27 signatures for national policy making and 19 for policy implementation.

After the resurrection of the democratic system, gradually increasing politicisation of bureaucracy by successive governments negatively impacted on public administration. The bureaucracy has lost, to a great extent, its confidence and courage. Earlier military-backed autocratic governments had considerably eroded the independence, objectivity and neutrality of the public administrators.

The net result of all these processes was the reduction of the bureaucracy to a state of weakness and servility. Over time, public administration in Bangladesh has weakened and degenerated. Consequently, the political leaders, when confronted with crises, find the bureaucratic machinery incapable of extending meaningful help and assistance.

The weakness of the bureaucracy dwarfs the politicians’ capacity to deliver the goods. The demands of politics and the day-to-day compulsions of staying in power keep the ruling political managers busy. They cannot go deep into the administrative and technical problems of development even when they have the qualification and competence.

This is true of all societies, developing or developed. Where bureaucracies are skilled, well trained and professional this does not stand on the way of solving administrative and development problems. Elsewhere, as in Bangladesh today, the woes of the political rulers are compounded a thousand-fold. The current power crisis is, thus, only the visible one-ninth of the iceberg.

Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor quarterly Asian Affairs was a former teacher of Dhaka University and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) and former non-partisan technocrat Cabinet Minister.


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