The hydro mirage

In 2008 a grand pronouncement was made of 10,000 MW by 2020 by the then government.

This was seen as the silver bullet to all of Bhutan’s economic challenges, including the biggest one of being a country that is economically not self-sufficient.

In the subsequent years the entire government machinery from politicians to bureaucrats pulled out all stops in achieving this hydro dream from fast tracking clearances to imbibing the hydro lingo.

With so much hydro targets and hydro talk a foreign visitor could be forgiven for mistaking members of the Bhutanese government for engineers from a hydropower construction company.

In countless press conferences, interviews and also TV appearances ministers and officials had a self satisfied air about themselves talking about the billions that hydropower would bring in, and that basically we just need not worry about Bhutan’s economic future.

Even when the almighty rupee crisis struck in 2012 a couple of cabinet ministers came on BBS to ask the nation to calm down as the 10,000 MW by 2020 would generate so much money that ‘we would not know where to even put the money’.

Meanwhile, a government oriented political and bureaucratic class sniffed at the private sector that did nothing but complain about woes. After all hydro projects would take care of all government revenues.

A special fund was even proposed so that there would be a place to put all that excess hydro money so that we can invest wisely and not just distribute the hydro money.

‘Resource curse’ was also a much bandied about term.

Not happy with all of the above we even cocked a snook at ‘poor Nepal’ struggling with power cuts, never mind that Nepal has a much more diversified and resilient economy and that their hydro building and maintenance technology is ahead of Bhutan.

Not to be left out the local media also croaked in tandem about the great flood of hydro milk and honey coming in a few years.

In an ultimate sign of hydro hubris we built entire future plans and budgets based on 10,000 MW by 2020, which of course would include multiple pay increases for government servants, who after all were building or supervising the all important projects.

Today, the ground reality is much more different and reality seems to have finally caught up with us through a series of rude shocks.

The first came when it became eminently clear that 10,000 MW by 2020 was only on paper with India making it clear that financing all of them would not be possible.

Before we could settle down another shock came with numerous economic projects showing that at the rate our imports are growing even some hydro projects would not be the solution to this.

The latest shock has come up with the impossible happening with a power surplus in India and falling tariffs.

Our long but deluded hydro romance has been upended, and it is now time to come to grips with reality. We have no option now but to look at diversifying our economy, developing our human resources, planning and strategizing for the long term and investing our limited resources in the right areas.

The future may look uncertain now but at least it is not one built on the clouds.

Commerce is a game of skill which everyone cannot play and few can play well.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

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