Editorial Simplified: Powering South Asian Integration | GS – II

Relevance : GS Paper II (International Relations)

Why has this article cropped up?

Recently, the Union Ministry of Power issued a memorandum that set the rules for the flow of electricity across South Asian borders.

Significance of this memorandum

  • It is important not only because it leads South Asian electricity trade in progressive directions but is also a concession to India’s neighbors in an area of political and economic importance.
  • It is a response to two years of intense backroom pressure from neighbors, particularly Bhutan and Nepal, to drop trade barriers put up in 2016.
  • India has thus signaled that it is serious about working with neighbors on the issues that should under-gird 21st century South Asian regionalism, such as electricity trade.
  • This course correction is a return to a trajectory of incremental, hard-earned progress developed over the decades.

The idea of cross-border energy flow

  • Ideas of tying South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries together with cross-border energy flows — that punctuated the early 2000s — began to gain steam with substantial power trade agreements between India and Bhutan (2006) and Bangladesh (2010).
  • These were driven by India’s need for affordable power to fuel quickened growth in a recently liberalized economy.
  • The apotheosis came in 2014 with the signing of the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation and the India-Nepal Power Trade Agreement in quick succession.

The erstwhile roadblocks

  • In 2016, the Union Ministry of Power released guidelines that imposed a slew of major restrictions on who could engage in cross-border electricity trade.
  • The guidelines prevented anyone other than Indian generators in the neighboring country, or generators owned by that country’s government, from selling power to India.
  • Nepal: Excluded were scores of privately held companies, particularly in Nepal, that had hoped to trade with India. In restricting access to the vast Indian market, the economic rationale for Nepali hydro-power built for export was lost.
  • Bhutan: Bhutan was worried about a clause that required the exporting generation companies to be majority owned by an Indian entity. This created friction in joint ventures between India and Bhutan. Bhutan also fretted about limited access to India’s main electricity spot markets, where it would have been well placed to profit from evening peaks in demand.
  • Bangladesh: Bangladesh had sensed an opportunity to partially address its power crisis with imports from Bhutan and Nepal routed through Indian territory but the guidelines complicated this by giving India disproportionate control over such trade.
    The resolve
  • After two years of protests from neighbors, the new guidelines resolve all these issues and restore the governance of electricity trade to a less restrictive tone.
  • Earlier concerns that India was enabling the incursion of foreign influence into neighboring power sectors seem to have been replaced by an understanding that India’s buyer’s monopoly in the region actually give it ultimate leverage.
  • More broadly, India seems to have acknowledged that the sinews of economic inter-dependency created by such arrangements have the political benefit of positioning India as a stable development partner rather than one inclined to defensive realpolitik.

Benefits of the new guidelines?

  • A liberal trading regime is in India’s national interest.
  • As India transitions to a power grid dominated by renewables, regional trade could prove useful in maintaining grid stability.
  • Major commitments to renewables, which could amount to half of India’s installed power within a decade, have prompted justifiable concerns about stabilizing the grid when the sun goes down or in seasons when renewables are less potent.
  • Harnessing a wider pool of generation sources, particularly hydro-power from the Himalayas that ramps up instantly as India turns on its lights and appliances after sunset, could be an important instrument in achieving a greener grid.
  • The new guidelines are a tentative first step towards the creation of a true regional market in which generators across the subcontinent compete to deliver low-cost, green energy to consumers.
  • The new guidelines are a significant step in this direction because, for the first time, they allow tripartite trading arrangements, where power generated in a country is routed over the territory of a neighbor to be consumed in a third. This is a crucial move towards the evolution of complex, multi-country market arrangements.

Way forward

  • Such markets require the construction of regional institutions that absorb the politics and manage the technicalities of electricity trade.
  • At present, this function is managed by the Indian state because of its geographic centrality and the ready availability of institutions that manage its domestic power sector. As volumes increase and experience in regional trade grows, South Asian nations might feel the need to build joint, independent regional institutions that proffer clear and stable rules of the road.
  • The political vision to create this — felt in the new guidelines — must be maintained.