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Singh and CPM in power fault focus

May 29: Fault lines between the Congress and its key ally, the Left, stood in the glare of the public eye today with the Prime Minister pressing for power reforms and CPM leader Prakash Karat warning against the government’s plans.

The CPM general secretary said his party wanted free power for farmers to continue, a day after Manmohan Singh expressed his disapproval of the concept.

At a conference of state power secretaries in Shimla, Singh followed up that statement by saying: “There is a need to reform the power sector to ensure that it becomes the engine of growth.”

The fulcrum of reforms is unbundling of generation, distribution and transmission, activities that are now vested in most states in the state electricity boards. These boards are carrying losses of over Rs 21,000 crore.

“Unbundling is not a goal itself. The goal is efficiency, economy, enhancement of power generation and, overall, ensuring a competitive environment,” Singh said.

Separating the three activities is a part of the Electricity Act, but the deadline for implementing this clause has been deferred till December under Left pressure.

Speaking in a neighbouring area, at Chandigarh, Karat reaffirmed opposition to the act, saying it promoted privatisation. “Once the act is implemented, the government will not be able to provide free power to farmers. But we want the facility to continue. We will agitate for the rights of poor farmers.”

Singh can expect trouble, with the Left already opposing the recent cabinet decision to divest 10 per cent of government equity from Bharat Heavy Electricals. “We will go to the people to stop the government,” Karat said.

He seemed to be in a particularly critical frame of mind, seeing little right with the government. “There is need for the government to follow the CMP (common minimum programme) rigidly'. We will now concentrate on movements and agitation if the CMP is not implemented.”

Karat chose to make comments about free power in an area where the provision was withdrawn after the Congress became the ruling party in Punjab. He, however, said his party was not asking for free power for farmers where the facility did not already exist, but was pleading for it to continue where it did.

If that is interpreted as less than an extremist position from the CPM, the Prime Minister also stopped short of chasing radical reform. He did not seek an end to cross-subsidy where a section of consumers pays for supplies at less than cost price to another section.

“It will continue for a long time'. In any unbundled framework, there has to be a cross-subsidy fee,” Singh said.

This aspect could go unnoticed on a day he called for reforms and Karat opposed them, highlighting the breach between the allies.

It is not that Singh is not aware of the division. “I continue to enjoy good relations with the Left but at times our thinking differs,” he said.

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