Empowering the East

While the Centre, after prolonged consideration, recently gave its nod to the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation’s (NEEPCO) 500 MW mega power project to be set up at the cost of Rs 1,800 crore in Monarchak in the Sonamura sub-division of West Tripura, the project itself presents a diagonally opposite set of possibilities. If implemented successfully, (and the region’s list of industrial non-starters more than justifies the apprehension), NEEPCO’s audacious plan to supply surplus power to Bangladesh and, more importantly, through Bangladesh to the rest of the Indian sub-continent could, however, mark the beginning of a process that could change the economy of the North-east.

Overcoming the chicken-neck that has prevented the transporting of large amounts of electricity from the region to the rest of the country would also mean overcoming other constraints, political and otherwise, that go much beyond the geographical. While it would be in the interest of both countries to see the logic of it, this would mean putting economics first. For Bangladesh, seeking lebensraum has been the easier, chosen option. For India, any long-term economic benefit for Bangladesh would have a direct and long-lasting bearing on the flow of illegal migrants from the poverty stricken neighbour.

Apart from Bangladesh, the project would have to deal with the political pushes and pulls of a region fraught with insurgency and inter-state boder disputes which, for example, jeopardised a power project in Assam, with Arunachal Pradesh raising fears of large-scale displacement within its borders. Nagaland, for its part, had to deal with militants who just about held the Doyang power project in the state to ransom.

For now, though, Tripura has reason to be upbeat, with the project, to be funded by the Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC), being one of the biggest here. “As soon as the JBIC team, which has toured the proposed site submits its report, a final decision will be taken," says Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. According to NEEPCO, work on the gas and water-based project, to be implemented in two phases, is expected to begin in about six months. The first phase has been earmarked for an initial 280 MW capacity. Besides Tripura, the project will supply electricity to Punjab, Delhi, Haryana and West Bengal through the national grid.

The Tripura project, thankfully, will cash in on the two major resources of the region, unlike, say the Bongaigaon Thermal Power Station (BTPS) in neighbouring Assam, that depends on fuel for its turbines from Bihar’s coalfields, while the state itself continues to flare crores of rupees worth of natural gas every day. Running perennially below capacity, BTPS has become the proverbial mill stone round the neck of a state that that should have set the standards in the industrialisation of the region. NEEPCO’s good intentions in Tripura notwithstanding, one, however, needs to add a note of caution here as well: the non-implementation of the much-touted gas-cracker project at Tengakhat in Assam because of a supposed lack of adequate gas, coupled with an excess of corporate squabbling, is just one example of the ground-level difficulties that projects in the region can run into. The cost of the gas-cracker now stands at Rs 4,100 crore, up from Rs 3,700 in 1985, the year it was sanctioned. As for the Tripura project, it has factored in a cost escalation of Rs 1,700 crore. The project would by the time of completion be capable of producing an additional 60 MW of power, says Tripura Industry and Commerce Minister Pabitra Kar. “Both natural gas and water to be used for the NEEPCO project and will be commissioned within four years from the start of work," he says.

The Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), will be responsible for supplying gas to the Tripura project, which has so far received clearance from most of the bodies concerned, including the ministries of Defence, Petroleum and Natural Gas, and Forest and Environment, along with the National Airport Authority and Central Electricity Authority. What remains to be seen now is whether the implementing authorities show the same grit and determination in pushing the project through, especially considering the fact that it has taken the state three years to get to the starting line. Completing the race, and on time, can often be a tall order in the North-east.

By Amit Rai Chaudhuri (newsfiledelhi@hotmail.com)