Washington, Oct. 8: Vindicated by the experience of the bankrupt energy giant Enron, India’s power ministry this week took both corporate and official America by surprise.
India’s recently appointed power minister Anant Geete, leading a 20-member mission to the US, yesterday conducted all his business here in Hindi: this is perhaps the first time that any visiting Indian minister to the US has insisted on speaking in public in any language other than English. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaks in Hindi, but only at the UN or at Indian community functions in the US.
In an instant, Geete robbed the Americans of some of their hyperbole in seeking to do business with India.
Americans are fond of saying that India and the US share democracy, an independent judiciary, a free press and English as the language of business.
Geete yesterday took India into the ranks of China, Russia, France, Japan and the like whose leaders make it a point never to speak a word of English here on official visits. Last month even Canada’s Prime Minister Jean Chretien insisted on speaking part in French when he met President George W. Bush.
The surprise which Geete and his team offered the Americans was not confined to style. It stood out in content as well. Geete said power sector reforms “have resulted in tariff increases without any improvement in quality, reliability and availability of power supply”.
But it was left to power secretary R V Shahi to do some plain-speaking with the power sector giants here and with members of the US administration, including at least one member of the Bush Cabinet.
Shahi did not refer directly to how India had suffered Enron’s corporate tyranny. But he unambiguously told an “Indo-US Energy Dialogue” that there will be no more counter-guarantees or any form of government guarantees for foreign investment in the power sector.
The dialogue was organised by the US Energy Association and the Confederation of Indian Industry.
A technocrat who raised the turnover of Bombay Surburban Electric Supply Limited by more than 50 per cent during his eight- year stewardship of this private sector company, Shahi acknowledged mistakes in India’s 10-year programme of electricity reform.
Looking back, there is an across-the-country consensus now that reform should have started with power distribution, not with electricity generation. He pointed out that annual losses of state electricity boards had increased five times in the last eight years of the reform phase.
Shahi surprised his American audience by saying that unlike a decade ago, neither the consumers nor the government any longer believed that power should be made available at any cost.
He startled American companies who may have been hoping to repeat Enron’s experience in arm-twisting India when he told them that of the 41,000 mw of additional power generation planned in the next five years, merely 6,000 would come from the private sector.
Plans were being made in the next decade to raise capacity by 100,000 mw, but the government was not expecting private investment till the second half of that 10 year period. The next two or three years will be spent reviving confidence to enable such inflow of investment.
Vicky Bailey, US assistant secretary in the department of energy, said “what concerns me most is that American power development and distribution companies in a number of states in India continue to face serious problems in having their contracts fulfilled”.
The team was to have been originally led by Geete's predecessor, Suresh Prabhu, who had earned the respect of his Western counterparts by his no-nonsense manner and transparency.
The delegation's visit had generated unprecedented interest within corporate America not only because of private sector interest here in India's power sector, but also because of the circumstances under which Prabhu was replaced by Geete.
The group visited California, which suffered severe power cuts last year and was a victim of Enron’s shennanigans and compared notes with members of the state's Energy Commission.
It visited Bush's home state of Texas, the hub of the energy sector in the US and met the leaders of the energy industry in America such as the president of
Bechtel and top executives of companies such as GE and Cooper Power Systems.