Metering in West Bengal: Of economics and politics

16 Jul

In those good old days (that is good old days for the Bengalis!), there was a saying that what Bengal does today; India does tomorrow. But thanks to decades of bad governance, this is not true anymore. Indeed, there is hardly anything that India can learn from Bengal – except perhaps how to manage agricultural electricity supply. In my previous post, I had written about how in the 1970s and 80s, all states in India had decided to remove meters from irrigation tubewells. Most of these states, including West Bengal, then started charging farmers a fixed fee for electricity use. This policy made sense at that time because tubewells were few and far between and the cost of meter reading was higher than the revenue generated from it. Besides, an unintended benefit was the proliferation of informal groundwater markets which then became the main conduit through which poor and marginal farmers got access to irrigation.

However, unmetered electricity supply precipitated a crisis in the electricity sector. By early 2000s it was widely recognized that agricultural tubewells – which now stood close to 10-12 million, needed to be metered for the sake of proper energy accounting. Energy accounting is the Achilles heel of India’s power sector. But by then, there were strong farmers lobbies and vested interest within the electricity departments which resisted any attempt at metering. The Electricity Act of 2003 made metering mandatory, but to no avail. West Bengal is the only state which has been able to meter agricultural tubewells. It started its metering program in 2007 and by now almost 90% of all tubewells in the state are metered. A 3ie funded project helped us evaluate the impact of metering of tubewells on groundwater use. Here is the link.

Why was West Bengal able to meter tubewells when other states failed? The answer, our research shows, lies in the domain of both economics and politics. The electricity utility in West Bengal, by continually raising flat tariff had made it so high, that by 2007, most farmers realized that electricity bill under a metered tariff will be much cheaper than the flat tariffs they were paying. In contrast, the other states had kept their flat tariffs so low (or even free) that farmers saw absolutely no benefit in switching over to metered tariff. And that West Bengal had all but 100,000 electric tubewells, as against 1.1 million in Punjab also helped. But then, why was Bengal able to raise flat tariff over the years, while other states could not? The answer lies in the politics of groundwater. West Bengal, unlike Gujarat or Punjab, never had a strong farmers lobby agitating for access to groundwater. This was because the way the Left Front government had co-opted the only farmers group in the state – the Krishak Sabha. The contrast is clear if we compare Gujarat’s Bharatiya Kisan Sabha with Bengal’s Krishak Sabha – something I did a few years ago. Here is the link.

The upshot is that West Bengal now has a reasonably good agricultural electricity governance regime – a regime that other states might as well emulate if they want to avert the crisis that they have been plunged into. Once again, Bengal sets the precedence. Yay!

5 Responses to “Metering in West Bengal: Of economics and politics”

  1. ChuiyerChu July 24, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    Your point about farmers lobby in Punjab is accurate! Electric pumps account for 0.15% of all Water lifting Devices in West Bengal as per the 3rd MI census. I do not have access to the 4th MI census data (Do you ? Is it publicly available) – The point is if the figures – are right – we know they are already debatable – as per your earlier blog post – does metering in WB matter at all – since they account for only 0.15% of all water lifting devices.

    • aditimukherji July 24, 2012 at 8:27 pm #

      The 3rd Census for West Bengal as shown on the MI Census website is wrong (some kind of data entry error as majority wells and tubewells are shown to be manually operated). The one available from the GoWB is right, that is at a block level and show roughly 15% pumps are electric. And if you add to the fact that electric pumps irrigate upto 4-6 times more area than diesel pumps, then area under electric pumps is close to 40% of all groundwater irrigated area in Bengal. And summer boro paddy is entirely dependant on electric tubewells, so yes, metering is significant.

  2. ChuiyerChu July 24, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    Oh wow – the MI Census website shows wrong data. THanks for the info. What does it take for them to correct? What is the basis for “electric pumps irrigate upto 4-6 times more area than diesel pumps..?”

  3. ChuiyerChu July 25, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    Can you share more details about your primary surveys in West Bengal? What was the sample size – sampling methodology – how recent is it? In addition what could be a good data point is share and absolute values of ag in electricity consumption in WB over the years – at least – any reference points for that.?

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