Com. Krushna Bhoyar, General Secretary, Maharashtra State Electricity Workers Federation, National Secretary, All India Federation of Electricity Employees (AIFEE) and National Council Member, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)
If workers and people fight unitedly, we can make the government roll back their anti-people policies. An excellent example of this was the relentless struggle of Maharashtra’s electricity workers and engineers which stopped the country’s first project of privatisation of electricity generation.
Due to the united struggle of electricity workers and engineers and their seven unions which have formed the National Coordination Committee of Electricity Employees and Engineers (NCCOEEE), the central government did not dare to table the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2021, in the monsoon session of the parliament. Twenty-six unions of electricity workers and engineers in Maharashtra are also members of NCCOEEE. The adjournment of the parliament session has given us some time to build public support for our struggle, and we must make full use of this time.
If workers and people fight unitedly, we can make the government roll back their anti-people policies. An excellent example of this was the relentless struggle of Maharashtra’s electricity workers and engineers which stopped the country’s first project of privatisation of electricity generation. I would like to inform you about this struggle. We should share this important information with all the people of Maharashtra and the country.
Before 1948, private sector power companies and businesses were involved in power generation, transmission and distribution in India. It was a time when only a few people from a few cities had power. Power was not distributed to the masses in the cities and in rural areas because setting up such a distribution system was too costly and unprofitable; none of the thousands of private capitalists who owned franchises wanted to invest in it. At that time, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar strongly argued that for the all-round development of the country, it was essential that the power generation, transmission and distribution sectors are owned by the government and that they are planned on a ‘no profit no loss’ basis.
In 1948, a new Electricity Act was enacted under which all the private franchises in the country were taken over by the government, and publicly owned electricity boards were established. One of the major objectives of this act was to provide electricity to all consumers at affordable rates, considering consumers’ purchasing power. This was a very important objective for the welfare of common people. In the ensuing 35–40 years, the central and state governments have invested crores of rupees of public money in this sector; many lakhs of power workers have worked hard to increase the country’s power generation capacity and create a network of lakhs of kilometres for power transmission and distribution across the country.
However, in 1991–92, the Congress government that was in power at the centre launched the policy of ‘Globalisation through Privatisation and Liberalisation’. The first blow of this harmful policy hit the power sector in Maharashtra. In 1992, the then Maharashtra government led by Sharad Pawar invited the infamous Enron company based in US to set up India’s first private power plant at Shringartali, Guhagar taluka, Ratnagiri, citing the reason that the state government could not build its own power plant because the government does not have enough money.
Under the leadership of the late Comrade AB Bardhan, the Maharashtra State Electricity Workers Federation, which was the first and largest trade union in the state’s power industry at that time, strongly opposed the Enron project from the very beginning. As activists of the organisation, we organised public meetings all over the state. In these meetings, we explained to the people in a well-researched and rational manner how the Enron project and privatisation of electricity will harm the country and its people. The Enron power generation project was not affordable for the people of Maharashtra as well as the country because Enron was going to generate power from naphtha, and our country did not have its production capacity.
Naphtha had to be imported in its liquid form from European or other countries by sea, and its shipping cost was very high. The rate of electricity generated from the Enron project would be Rs. 7.50 per unit, and the distribution of electricity to homes would cost another Rs. 11. Therefore, we raised the question of who will buy this expensive electricity. In Maharashtra, electricity generated from coal, water, gas and windmills was much cheaper than the proposed project. We also asked the government why we should buy such expensive electricity. Further, we pointed out that the hot water that would be released into the sea after power generation would affect fishing along the Konkan coast; it would also affect the production of mangoes, cashews, jackfruit, etc. in the Konkan region. Due to our rational arguments, the Workers Federation received huge support from the people. On June 5, 1994, a large and successful anti-Enron conference was held at Shringartali.
Seeing the growing resistance of the people, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena, which were the opposition parties, took a stand against this project and announced that if they came to power, the Enron project would be dropped. The strong opposition from the Workers Federation and the general public led the Congress government to finally cancel the project. This was the first victory of the united struggle of the Workers Federation and the people. In the 1994 assembly elections, the Congress party lost, and the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena party came to power in a coalition government. Rebecca Mark, President and Managing Director of Enron, met with the party leaders. The coalition government then rolled back the announcement that the Enron project would be stopped, and the project was revived.
The Enron plant started generating about 2000 MW of electricity in 1999. Although the power board did not need to, it was forced to start purchasing power from Enron at a rate of Rs. 7.80 per unit from July 2000. The Workers Federation sustained their resistance. We kept on showing the people how much the government and the people are suffering due to the high cost of electricity. We continued to hold meetings and protests. Finally, the Maharashtra State Electricity Board announced the cancellation of the power purchase agreement with Enron on 23 May 2001. Once again, the struggle of the power workers and the people was successful.
In December 2001, Enron, the seventh-largest robber in the United States, went bankrupt and was shut down. However, by then, the Maharashtra State Electricity Board had lost Rs. 3,361 crore, and the finances of the Board started to deteriorate.
In this way, we have to convey to the people how Enron, the first and foremost project of privatisation in the power sector, was a failure and threat to the public coffers. The anti-Enron protests are a good example of how, if we present our arguments in a rational manner, people will certainly support us, and the united struggle of electricity consumers and workers will definitely stop the government from taking any anti-people steps.
I have always been inspired by the anti-Enron fight. I am sure you will be too.
Long live the solidarity of electricity workers and consumers!
(Translation of article received in Marathi)