Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi, is both popular and competent, a rare combination in these frayed times. The principal architect of many initiatives that made Delhi a better city for its denizens, she speaks in this interview with Christabelle Noronha about the power sector reforms that her government set about, the benefits that have accrued, and the role companies such as Tata Power Delhi Distribution (TPDDL) have played in making them a success.
Why did the Delhi government feel the need to bring the private sector into the power business?
This is a story that goes back more than a decade. Despite the fact that New Delhi is the capital of India, it had to endure eight-ten hours of power cuts every day. We thought it was a shame, not only for us but also the country, that our capital had to suffer this situation.
We set up a group to figure out what could be done, to see how we could privatise the distribution part of it and also include the generation and sale of power in the package. We invited companies to consider this business opportunity; the Tatas were one of those invited and the Ambanis were the other.
What would you attribute the success of this partnership to?
It cannot be attributed to a particular individual or institution. I think it was the determination of the government and also the fact that we got good companies involved in the project. There was competition and this made the companies work harder; each wanted to outdo the other.
We are 49 percent stakeholders in this business, so we had our interests. There were hiccups in the beginning but I think this is now something that everybody involved is comfortable with. People may say power is a problem, but that is because of politically motivated elements and equations.
Coming to TPDDL, what, in your opinion, did the company do right?
I think TPDDL, like all Tata enterprises, has a lot of credibility; that was one factor that put everybody at ease. The company won the confidence of consumers, took steps to make them feel welcome and also gave the feeling that it was working for the larger public good, rather than merely for profits. That was a good message to send out. Everybody knows the company is going to make a profit, but if you are subtle about it and you provide good service, then the impact is greater.
Additionally, TPDDL had all these outreach programmes and camps, and their efforts on this count were important. They asked consumers if they required meters and made them available. We requested the company — and they agreed — to give consumers a choice on the kind of meters they wanted. That kind of flexibility was appreciated because, at one point, there was a hue and cry about meters running too fast. People had got used to ‘hooking up’ to electricity lines and taking power without paying for it. It was a big psychological and cultural change for them to pay for the power they were using.
This went off well in part because TPDDL’s public relations initiatives were good and their endeavours instilled confidence in consumers. We never had any complaints about the company.
You must have faced a lot of opposition to these reforms. How did you deal with it?
There was opposition. TPDDL and all of us got together and said this is bound to happen. When you change over to something new there is always a sense of suspicion and questions, but we managed to build up confidence gradually. Our power department and the private companies, TPDDL among them, would have continuous dialogues. We went out to meet people — I was myself one of those who did this — and asked them if they were satisfied with the new arrangement.
All of this change happened over a decade. A decade may not seem like a lot, but it seems to us like a very long time because of the mess that had to be cleaned up. As I said, there was suspicion and this habit of stealing power, and the stealing part was not easy to get over. We started a campaign in schools and in the media to curb wastage. All of this contributed to the making of a happy partnership and it brought consumers much more comfort than they had ever experienced.
Do you think this model can be replicated with other utilities?
I certainly think that can happen, provided all the partners involved have the will to do what’s required. We received a lot of flak on power sector privatisation but, yes, this kind of arrangement can be replicated. We are trying to do something similar with the distribution of water, the idea being that when you pay for a utility you are likely to be more careful about how, and how much, you use.
What is your expectation of this relationship in the years ahead?
I would expect it to get better and better. TPDDL has started with solar panels and that is a good initiative. What I find nice about TPDDL is that it is always willing to go a step forward; it does not give the impression of being in the business only for the money. People have got used to receiving good-quality power and I think TPDDL and the other companies involved are getting what they deserve to get. If they move backwards we would be forced to return to the dark ages, I don’t think they will.
What message do you have, as TPDDL celebrates its 10th anniversary, for the company’s employees?
Well, to the employees I would specially say, “Thank you very much, you have helped effect a turnaround, something which looked impossible when we started off 10 years ago. You have responded to the changing situation, the changing tariffs and the changing times.”
These days, if power goes off for even five minutes the alarm bells start ringing. Previously, it wouldn’t come on for five hours and people would bear with the situation. I think our association with TPDDL has been really good and we feel particularly happy that this is becoming a kind of model for the whole world. Wherever there are power problems, Delhi is cited as an example.