Interview with K.M. Singh

Chairman & MD, NHPC Limited

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K.M. Singh, chairman and managing director, NHPC Limited, is pushing to make the hydro major into a 10,000 MW company and also grow its renewable energy footprint…

As the power industry moves ahead, K.M. Singh, chairman and managing director (CMD), NHPC, is steering the company towards a higher growth trajectory. He believes that India is at an inflexion point in its history and this makes it an exciting time to do business. As the nation prepares for life beyond 8 per cent GDP growth, he says the power sector must prepare for double-digit growth. A key element of this growth will be the development of green and clean energy.

Singh has, time and again, emphasised the role of hydropower in grid stability and power reliability. He maintains that a 40 per cent share of hydro in the total generation capacity is optimally required, as opposed to the current figure of just 15 per cent. “Hydropower not only helps in meeting peak load demand but also acts as a spinning reserve that can be called upon at times of grid instability,” he says.

Speaking to Power Line at the NHPC office near Connaught Place in New Delhi, Singh says it has been his ambition to help ordinary Indians get a better life. In fact, one of his key reasons for choosing engineering as a profession was that he felt it would give him a chance to “create” something lasting, tangible and, in the case of hydro, long lasting, something through which he could make a difference to people’s lives. Since electricity is the sine qua non of a better life, entering the power sector after finishing his electrical engineering from Gorakhpur University, Uttar Pradesh, was the natural choice for him. He joined NHPC in 1979 and has been with the company ever since.

It has clearly been a fulfilling journey for him. “Most hydro plants are in remote areas, in tribal areas where people have very little. When a project comes along, roads, bridges and businesses come up, and people get educated and find jobs. I have seen this every time, wherever I have been posted in my career,” he says.

As just one example, Singh mentions his experiences in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, where he spent about nine years, before becoming CMD. The Narmada Bachao Andolan opposed the implementation of NHDC’s Indira Sagar Project for reasons he cannot fathom because he could see the positive impact the project had on the local community. “The plant has enabled wider irrigation, which has meant that an area that was so arid that farmers could not grow even a single crop, has seen them grow three crops a year. The ambient temperature has fallen by five degrees because of the reservoir and the ground water level has risen owing to the storage of water. I have seen this with my own eyes,” he says emphatically.

Singh talks of the hydro sector’s unique set of challenges, which include inter-state disputes on water sharing, rehabilitation issues, and delays in obtaining environment and forest clearances. Project locations are typically in far-flung areas, which present their own challenges, in the form of logistics, availability of infrastructure and local insurgencies. In fact, Singh spent about 15 years in the Northeast, often in areas where militancy was rampant. Then, of course, there are the challenges of sub-surface geology and construction techniques.

Singh has been vocal in his opinion regarding the sharing of ideas by developers to overcome the challenges faced during execution and has suggested having a common developers’ platform, where the issues can be discussed and a consensus reached on how to tackle certain problems.

Singh has worked on some of NHPC’s landmark projects and contributed to the company’s development by serving at the Rangit Power Station, the Dhauliganga project, the Uri I Power Station, the Siang Basin and the NHDC-Indira Sagar Power Station in various capacities. When he was chief executive director, he made the company a lithe and supple organisation, which frequently surpassed generation targets. This job was perhaps one of his most challenging as he had to deal with the teething problems associated with the newly commissioned Omkareshwar project. During his tenure at the corporate office, he introduced a special clause for quality assurance and equipment inspection during the manufacturing stage and the tender specification stage.

“I have enjoyed all my projects. If you don’t enjoy them, you cannot function in a company like NHPC where the locations are difficult and in remote areas. You have to get accustomed to tough working conditions and long hours. You are on call 24×7. The work pressure is tremendous, so only those who are truly committed can deliver and enjoy it. We provide clubs, sports facilities, schools and entertainment, but you have to create your own social life,” he says.

In 2008, Singh became chief executive director of NHDC, a subsidiary company of NHPC. NHDC has been receiving an “excellent” rating from 2009 onwards from the Department of Public Enterprises for its performance and achievement of MoU milestones.

Meanwhile, NHPC too has been performing well and has just delivered its best year in terms of generation. It is now a 5,000 MW company on a stand-alone basis. Four hydropower projects with a total installed capacity of 3,210 MW are under construction and 6,995 MW worth of projects are at various stages of clearances. Singh says that the aim is to commission these projects as early as possible and become a 10,000 MW company.

“To achieve this target, I have devised a roadmap emphasising quick and efficient decision-making. Apart from hydropower, we intend to venture into renewable energy too, and are envisaging four renewable energy projects with a total capacity of 230 MW on an ownership basis. Further, a solar project in Kalpi, Uttar Pradesh, and a thermal project in Pirpainti, Bihar, are also under consideration as joint ventures,” he says.

Since taking over as CMD, Singh has been streamlining the construction activities by visiting all the sites and conveying to his teams that a hands-on approach is required at every level in the organisation. Thanks to this kind of approach, his team was able to restart the tunnel boring machine works at the Parbati II project where the machine had been stuck in a shear zone since 2011.

NHPC is strongly pushing the completion of its 2,000 MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project, the largest such project under construction in India so far. It has been stalled for many years owing to agitation by various pressure groups in Assam. NHPC has already spent more than Rs 85 billion on it and the matter is being constantly pursued with the Assam government. “We are fully committed to resuming work at the earliest. The project is expected to be completed within four years of being resumed. Once it is finished, it will be the crowning jewel of the Indian power sector,” he says.

As to his work style, Singh believes in adapting his management style to the demands of the situation. He trusts his work force, saying its overall technical expertise has made it the best in the field today. He leads by example, keeps his door open to everyone, encourages people to suggest ideas, and recognises achievements. His own motivation comes from the happy feeling of leading an organisation that is dedicated to nation-building. Seeing people in remote areas wake up to clean and cheap power is the source of his greatest satisfaction.

Oddly enough for someone who has spent a lot of his life working in mountainous terrain, as a young boy growing up in Gorakhpur, he was afraid of the hills, never mind the mountains. He says it was a huge challenge for him to overcome this fear, but it happened soon after he joined NHPC.

In spite of his busy schedule, Singh spares regular time for yoga and meditation. He regards this regimen, which he has been following for decades, as crucial for his physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Spending enough time with his family is also a priority. He says that his wife, son and daughter have always been supportive and encouraged him during times of disappointment.

“I maintain a healthy work-life balance. If you don’t have peace of mind and if you are not relaxed, you will find it difficult to achieve your full potential. Everybody has to devise their own way to relax as there is no single approach that works,” he says. Singh also enjoys reading, particularly biographies of great personalities. The works of Swami Vivekananda are among his all-time favourites.

Looking ahead, Singh says that taking NHPC to new heights in terms of generation and installed capacity, along with a highly satisfied employee base, is his top priority. He has a clear vision for NHPC and wants to make it one of the most prestigious organisations in the power sector, one that is ready for challenges and opportunities not only in hydro but also in solar, wind and thermal.

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