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Lights Out. Dev. HT Apr 30 2007

Hindustan Times

30 April 2007

Lights Out

By Ashali Varma

In no other country that I have visited as a reporter or lived in, is such sheer inertia shown by the government on providing electric power to its citizens. After all we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here—electricity was discovered more then 100 years ago. Power generation is not rocket science nor is it intricate brain surgery. My father Lt. Gen Prem Bhagat proved this in 1974 in Calcutta as Chairman of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC).

All it needed was political will, which he got from the then Minister of Power, K.C. Pant, who backed his decisions whole heartedly, and a drive to improve power generation. Unfortunately he died just ten months into his term as Chairman but by then power production in DVC had risen twenty- fold! I was very young when he died and did not know the intricacies of how he did it. He did tell me broadly that DVC suffered from low morale, apathy, too much paperwork and bureaucracy that literally tied it into knots and resulted in sheer neglect.

Recently, a book written by Major General V.K. Singh, titled “Leadership in the Indian Army,” describes some of the ways he went about it and the kind of action urgently needed in India now on a much larger scale.

Singh writes, “With his characteristic vigour and no-nonsense approach, he (Prem) got the sluggish behemoth moving and soon the results were there for all to see. From 45 MW in August 1974, the production rose to 700 MW by October 1974, an increase of more than 15 times in just two months!

He goes on to describe that on Bhagat’s very first visit to the office he wanted to be introduced to all the staff. One old man shook his hand and started crying. On asked why he was crying he said that in all his years in DVC this was the first time he had met the Chairman. Soon he was visiting now only the power plants but also the homes of the employees to see what they needed. Soon there was visible improvement in the amenities and living conditions of the employees.

Then on a visit to a power plant he realized that the very low productivity was due to a lack of spare parts. The file containing the requisition had been shuttling between various departments for six months! Bhagat was shocked. He got hold of the file and wrote, “Sanctioned” and signed his name below. “Now get on with it.” He said. On returning to his office, he issued instructions increasing the financial powers of the plant managers so that they would not have to refer to him for making urgent purchases. At another power plant he found that some generators were not working and that replacements were expected to be shipped out for Japan and it would take six months. That for him was unthinkable. He ordered that they should be flown across.  His staff looked incredulous and wondered what it would cost. “Much less than the losses we are incurring due to a shortage of power.” he said.

Just before the Puja holidays in West Bengal he heard that union leaders usually strike for bonus. He declared an eight percent bonus several months before and baffled the union.  

With much of the red tape removed and better working conditions the morale went up in DVC and power generation hit an all time peak. He even showed the employees that he was willing to do everything he asked them to do. Once on a visit to a plant he found the bathrooms very dirty. He asked the employees to get them cleaned immediately. On his return a few hours later he found nothing had been done. He went to the market got cleaning materials and attacked the bathrooms himself. On seeing this the employees were aghast and promised to see to it themselves. After he died one of the officers told me proudly that DVC has the cleanest bathrooms in Bengal!

He once told me that the buck really stops at the top. One should not blame the employees when the system is rotten and bogged down by bureaucracy, one has to change it and this can only come from the top. While he lay fighting for his life one man among many who came to pray for him was the union leader. He told me that he admired and respected him and prayed for his life and DVC still needed him. It was a touching tribute from someone my father had taken on.

Today, when India has achieved so much, I wonder what he would have said about the abysmal power generation. I can almost hear him saying, “The buck stops at the top. And to all those on the top I say make power an urgent priority and get to work now.” Anything less he would have thought would be shameful and let down those who are really trying to make India Incredible.