Workers walk on a heap of coal at a stockyard of an underground coal mine in the Mahanadi coal fields at Dera, near Talcher town in the eastern Indian state of Orissa March 28, 2012. Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
“If you work hard, and put your heart and soul into it, then you are allowed to steal some,” said Shivpal Singh Yadav, a minister for public works for India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (UP). “But don’t be a bandit.” Caught on camera, Yadav’s words were replayed in newscasts across India on August 9, 2012, nine days after a power failure left half of India’s population—one-tenth of the planet’s people—without power. Among the Indian states that suffered the blackout, twice, was Yadav’s home state of UP.
A preliminary government investigation into the cause of the blackouts blamed “indiscipline of state electricity boards and faulty management by the northern grid operator Power Grid Corporation” for the blackouts. Yet two other simpler reasons, theft and climate change, should not be overlooked.
Theft and corruption have played a role in India’s power failures for decades. At every step in the supply chain, money is siphoned off via direct bribes or shortcuts. There is the theft of the politically connected—like Yadav. And there are special deals cut with farmers, large hotels and others who collect favors in the form of free or guaranteed electricity in exchange for bribes of powerful officials. Then there is theft of the Adivasis, or tribals, the untouchables and other disenfranchised people of India. More than a third of India’s households do not have enough electricity to power a light bulb, according to last year’s census. And so they steal it. In fact, as much as 40 percent of India’s electrical power is stolen.
June and July is traditionally the season for planting rice in the north. Rice is a staple crop for India, and India’s paddies provide a significant share of rice for export to global markets. Rice paddies require an abundance of water. With a delayed monsoon (yet another anticipated outcome of climate change), farmers in North India were using more power than usual to pump groundwater to irrigate their crops. This, together with the ongoing theft of power from the grid, certainly played a pivotal role in the northern grid’s power failure.
How did India, a country with plentiful coal reserves and a growing GDP, get into a situation of energy theft and such energy inequality? World Bank policies had a lot to do with it. Coal is India’s biggest and dirtiest source of power, providing over 57 percent of the country’s electricity. Yet, despite its abundance, it is increasingly hard to come by. One reason: unsettled land is in short supply in a country about a third the size of the United States but home to almost four times—or 1.2 billion—people.
For decades, the World Bank provided inducements to the government of India to expand its exploitation of coal. The bank also pushed privatization of the power sector and expansion of strip mining. Underground miners once had one of India’s most powerful labor unions. While dangerous and dirty, these jobs provided a decent living, and underground mining prevented the widespread environmental and social destruction that open-pit mines ushered in. At the World Bank’s behest, however, strip mines replaced thousands of underground mines; miner’s unions were busted and replaced with a handful of workers driving large dump trucks.