One theme keeps recurring in Dr A.K. Verma’s conversations about work and that is his passion to serve disadvantaged Indians, a goal that can only be achieved, he says, by reaching out to people, understanding their lives and situations, making them partners in the entire process, accelerating government welfare schemes, making the schemes converge and improving delivery.
When these streams merge in the right way at the right time and you see the result on the faces of the people you meet in villages – people who used to have no power or water – that is the ultimate satisfaction, Verma says. According to him, one clear and positive change in India is that people are beginning to demand reliable and quality power all the time.
The current thrust of the government to complete rural electrification is uppermost on his mind. This has been taken on mission mode, he explains in collaboration with States. At present monitoring done almost on daily basis. Gram Vidyut Abhiyanta (GVAs) equipped with tablet, are posted in the field. Their visit, progress of works, and any issue cropping up there is uploaded online and acted upon immediately from different authorities. Entire process is made transparent and kept in public domain on mobile App, namely GARV. In the first week of February, the power ministry said it electrified 245 villages under the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana. The remaining villages in the country will have power by May 1, 2018.
Verma took over as joint secretary in the power ministry in November 2014 and, given the scope of the job and the government’s sense of urgency, he has found it challenging and exciting. His three main focus areas are rural electrification, improving the financial health of the distribution companies, and promoting energy conservation and efficiency because, as he says, “the taste of the pudding is in the eating and distribution is the crucial last mile”.
Many experts believe that the government’s Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana (UDAY) to aid ailing distribution companies has a better chance of succeeding than the previous financial restructuring plan. It’s believed that UDAY is better because, this time, the state governments are on board. Verma emphasises the close cooperation with the state governments.
“The UDAY scheme has been brought in for the operational and financial turnaround of our discoms. We believe that only a multi-pronged approach will work. We aim at reducing the cost of power, reducing the interest burden on the discoms and improving operational efficiency,” says Verma.
Once the health of the discoms has improved and the losses are plugged, they will have greater incentive to supply to more and more people. “We are doing so much – reducing losses, pushing the use of LED bulbs, and undertaking demand side management through the use of improved energy efficient agricultural pumps, smart meter deployment and feeder metering. All these activities will help in narrowing the gap between the cost of supply and the average revenue realised,” he says.
Verma has shown that he can deliver results. He worked as managing director of government-owned power distribution company Uttar Gujarat Vij Company Limited (UGVCL) from 2008 to 2011. During this period, he managed to reduce its distribution losses from 17 per cent to 6.63 per cent. UGVCL is a rural utility catering to more than 10 million people, consuming more than 15,000 MUs of energy. Apart from pioneering the work on smart grid in UGVCL, Verma ensured computerisation of the payments systems and made them online. He also improved the quality of supply. This performance led to the Ministry of Power, Government of India awarding UGVCL the Gold Shield for Best Performance in 2010-11. UGVCL was also given the first prize at the IEEMA Power Award 2009 and the ICWAI prize for cost management. It also won the India Power Award 2009 and 2010 for excellence as a rural utility and for demand side management.
Verma obtained an M.Sc in physics and then joined the Indian Forest Service in 1986. He has acquired an M.Sc in forestry also. Although he grew up in Bihar, he spent most of his active working life in Gujarat (and speaks fluent Gujarati). “Working in Gujarat is exciting and fascinating,” he says. “You see the results faster. People there are receptive, responsible, vigilant and resilient.”
His assignments have been numerous and high profile. He was member secretary of the Gujarat Ecology Commission and has managed the World Bank-aided Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project as project director in Gujarat. In fact, his dissertation thesis on Indian Environmental Diplomacy: Focus and Framework written during his Post Graduate Programme in Public Policy and Management at IIM Bangalore serves as a reference point in the field of environmental diplomacy. For about eight years, he had been a member of the consultative group constituted by the government to look into matters pertaining to the Commission on Sustainable Development and the United Nations Convention for Combating Desertification.
Verma’s experience of forestry is second to none. He has managed two tough forest divisions, implemented participatory forest management, redesigned the JBIC-funded IFDP of Gujarat and contributed to the formulation of Gujarat’s Forest Development Policy. The latter restored degraded forests and improved the livelihoods of people living in and around forest areas. The project raised the level of understanding of the dynamics involved in developing forest ecosystems and improved the knowledge base for sustainable forest management. The tribal areas along the eastern border of Gujarat were particularly affected by forest decline.
He also prepared the Forest Protection Plan of Rajpipla (East) Forest Division and the Management Plan of Vyara Forests, and guided the preparation of the Social Forestry Management Plan of Dahod Division and the Urban Ecosystem and Forestry Development Project of Ahmedabad. His other area of expertise is tribal policy; he has a Ph.D in Tribal Development Policy and has worked extensively in this field, including as commissioner, tribal development in Gujarat during 2005-08, where he was instrumental in conceptualising, designing and implementing the Rs 150 billion Van Bandhu Kalyan Yojana as part of the Chief Minister’s 10 Point Programme for tribal development.
Verma designed and implemented many new and effective schemes such as the Doodh Sanjivani Yojana for providing nutritional supplements to school students, Project Kanad for teaching science and mathematics in Ashramshala, and an employment-oriented skill upgrading training course for tribal youths. “For tribal development policies to be effective, the tribals themselves have to be involved in designing programmes that suit them and that means the planning has to be done with close coordination with the community so that you understand their felt needs. For example, do they need jobs first, or water, or a road? The situation varies from area to area. There is no one size solution that fits all. Policy/programmes need to be customised. I believe that education and employment are two most important issues for development of tribal areas. As soon as electricity reaches them too, the level of economic activity will rise,” he says.
He has no time for those who romanticise life in the forests and living off the fat of the land or the berries of trees. His experience has shown him that tribals want to enter the mainstream and enjoy economic growth, but without having their culture disturbed.
Nor does he approve of some activists who reflexively oppose nearly all development projects. “Ín the competition for scarce resources, there is always a trade-off. The rational mind accepts that. It’s a question of finding the right balance. It’s not easy. Policymaking is both an art and a science,” he says.
Verma is impatient. He knows there is a lot to do. He would like to move mountains and that’s what drives him to work seven days a week, taking work home and spending time on the phone. Work is not a chore; he enjoys it. “If you are not passionate about your work, you cannot excel,” he says.
The way he gets excellence out of his staff is to define their role and provide the systems and then give them the freedom to get on with the job. He can see this sort of autonomy becoming more visible in the wider government machinery too. “There is much less red tape now. People are crossing boundaries, converging, working together, collaborating better. The bureaucracy is not the old machine it used to be in colonial times.”
In his leisure time, he likes to read – literature, science, contemporary politics – but of late has found little time for it. He manages to listen to music and do yoga in the mornings with his wife Snigdhaa. He also tries to find time to write. “I haven’t written as much as I would have liked to over the past five to six years,” he says. “Once I retire, I plan to write much more.”