Of the five thermal power plants in the state, three are privately owned while two are run by the Punjab government. Two of the three private power plants have been shut since 1 October by agitating farmers in protest against the three contentious farm laws passed by Parliament in September and what they describe as the state government’s bias towards private players. The third plant has been shut since it ran out of coal last week.
The protest by farmers began as a fight against the farm laws but has since galvanised as a campaign against corporates that extends to toll plazas, petrol pumps and malls owned by Reliance and Essar, and freight trains run by the Adani Group that bring coal for the private thermal plants.
The resentment triggered by the shutdown of the state’s oldest power plant in Bathinda — owned by the government — earlier this year provided fuel, as did the central government’s proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill, a reform legislation that is aimed at increasing private participation in the sector but faces allegations of being anti-farmer and a step towards the privatisation of the entire power sector.
The state government, meanwhile, defends itself against allegations of favouring the private power plants, saying its facilities alone can’t fulfil the requirements of the paddy season. Farmers dispute this claim.
With daily demonstrations and round-the-clock dharnas at the entrances of the private plants, the farmers are in no mood to allow them to function. The farmers’ protest continues at the main entrance of plants, but protesters have shifted their agitation from the tracks near the power facilities to allow passage of freight trains carrying coal and other essentials.
However, even as the farmers and the state government insist that the protests are off the tracks, the central government has said goods train movement will only resume after an assurance from Punjab on the safety of the railways.
As a result, Punjab’s power demand is not being met and key cities and towns like Patiala, Jalandhar, Mohali have been experiencing hours-long power cuts.
Power crisis in power-surplus Punjab
The two government-run power plants are located at Lehra Mohabbat and Ropar, and the three privately-owned ones at Talwandi Sabo, Rajpura and Goindwal Sahib.
The former have a power-generation capacity of 1,760 MW while the combined capacity of the three private power plants is 3,920 MW. In addition, the state can produce 1,300 MW through renewable sources of energy — hydro, solar and biomass — taking Punjab’s total power generation capacity to around 7,000 MW.
According to the load-generation balancing report for 2019-2020 released by the Central Electricity Authority, which advises the Union government on power policy, Punjab is 22.9 per cent surplus. In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, too, the CEA had stated that Punjab will remain power-surplus.
However, with the three private power plants shut, only the two government ones are operational. According to the Punjab government, the power generated by the state-run plants is not enough to meet the state’s needs.
“At this time of the year, during paddy season, our power requirement reaches 13,000 MW. Now, due to the shutdown, Punjab has a shortage of at least 500-700 MW of power,” said a senior official in the Punjab government who did not want to be named.
“The government plants are old and cannot satisfy the needs of the paddy season,” the official added.
The protesting farmers, however, reject this claim, accusing the state and the central governments of being hand-in-glove with private players.
Maihar Singh, a protester, said “Punjab has more than enough electricity”.
“The Punjab government sells extra power to Delhi for Rs 2/unit but farmers have to pay Rs 8-12/unit. They are no different than the Modi government in protecting corporate interests. They are just blaming farmers for the power shortage to gain political mileage,” he added.
Sukhdev Kokari, general secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), which is spearheading the protest at these private power plants, said, “If the government starts running its two power plants to its full capacity, there won’t be any power shortage.
“If the government power plants run to full capacity and there’s still a power shortage, we will immediately call off the protest and vacate the plant entrances.”
Targeting private players
ThePrint visited Talwandi Sabo and Rajpura, two of the three private plants in the state on Saturday. Both have been shut down by protesters as they are owned by private conglomerates — Vedanta and L&T.
Under the banner of the BKU (Ekta Ugrahan), farmers have been agitating at the railway tracks around these two private plants since 1 October, but the site has since shifted.
“We started our protest on the rail tracks leading to these power plants on 1 October and continued till 23 October to choke the coal supply. After the Centre suspended freight trains on 24 October, we moved to the entrance because we don’t want to inconvenience farmers who need essential supplies for cultivation at this time. But our protest against the corporates is still underway,” said Uttam Singh of BKU (Ekta Ugrahan), who was protesting at Talwandi Sabo.
Farmers said, with the passage of the three farm laws, the Modi government wants to hand over their land to the corporates. The three laws have also been opposed by the state political parties, with the assembly passing its own legislations to negate them and also issuing a resolution rejecting the electricity bill.
“We have targeted the corporates who want to take over our land through the new farm bills brought by Modi. This is why we first blockaded the rail tracks so coal could not reach these private industries and our message would reach Delhi,” said Ravinder Singh, who was also protesting at Talwandi Sabo.
The protests at the power plant are another manifestation of fears against unchecked corporatisation, with the apprehensions associated with the Electricity (Amendment) Bill exacerbating protesters’ concerns.
“We are also protesting against the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to make farmers pay high prices for electricity in order to favour private companies and help them profit,” said BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) chief Joginder Ugrahan.
According to the protesters, the thermal plants have been targeted because the Punjab government, too, “only wants to incentivise private players”.
“The government has shut down the state-run power plants and are only incentivising private plants. Look at the government-run plant in Bathinda, which was shut down. Even now, with these private plants shut, the government is only operating 1 or 2 units in the state-run power plants in Ropar and Lehra Mohabbat. Why aren’t they running these private plants to their full capacity?” said Gurvinder Singh, who was protesting at Rajpura.
“We have targeted these power plants run by corporates because the government has shut down their own power plants and is only running these private plants which charge exorbitant rates from farmers,” said Nassattar Singh of BKU (Ekta Ugrahan), who was also protesting at Talwandi Sabo.
“Government power plants charge electricity at Rs 2/unit but these corporates charge Rs 10-12/unit,” he added. “They are looting farmers. Now with these three farm laws, the Modi government wants to give away our land as well to the corporates, which we will not allow.”
Said Maihar Singh at Rajpura, “The Modi government and the Amarinder government are two sides of the same coin. They are only fear-mongering that Punjab is suffering from a power shortage.”
The aforementioned state government official defended the administration against the allegations. “Without getting into the claims of farmers, the Punjab government is buying power from 70 sources, both inside and outside the state. Wherever power is cheap, we buy power; whether it’s private or government. The variable costs in private sector plants is much cheaper,” said the official.
Asked about the protests against the electricity bill, the official added, “The Punjab government is against the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill. We have already moved a resolution in the Punjab assembly against it.”
‘Power shortage not due to farmers’
While the state government has claimed that the coal supply has been disrupted due to the rail blockade, stoking a power crisis in the state, farmers say the government is free to run the state-owned power plants.
“Our protest is against the corporates and the Modi government for bringing in these anti-farmer laws. Despite the protests across Punjab, the government plants at Ropar and Lehra Mohabbat are running. We have not done anything there. The tracks are empty. We have announced that freight trains can run,” said Jaswant Singh, who was protesting at Rajpura.
“But the government wants to defame us and that’s why they are accusing us of being responsible for the power shortage.”
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