The problem with private provisioning of public goods

… is that private players who are providing those goods have an incentive in blocking attempts by the public sector to provide those goods. For the purpose of analysis, let us take the example of Gurgaon, both because I’m reasonably familiar with it and because it has been in the news in the international media thanks to a recent profile of the city by the New York Times.

Now, Gurgaon has a major problem with power supply. It is said that (I don’t have first hand info for reasons you’ll soon understand) the “city” faces about four to six hours of regular power cuts every day. I don’t know the exact reasons for it (surprisingly, Haryana sells power to other states so it appears there is no power deficit per se in the state), but it could be a pricing issue, with free power for farmers and all that. Anyway, the reason for the power cuts doesn’t matter so much.

In reaction to this, apartment societies have taken it upon themselves to provide “power backup” to the residents (for a fee of course). Even in that, there are three grades. I used to live in a DLF complex that had “one hundred per cent power backup”, which meant that I was assured of 24/7 power supply. Every time there was a power cut, the generators would start in a matter of a few seconds, and with “one hundred percent backup”, I could run just about any device on the “backup” power supply. In return, I would pay the apartment association six rupees per unit (as opposed to 3 rupees I pay here for sarkari power in Bangalore).

Then, there as “eighty percent backup”, in which you could use the generator-power supply to run all appliances except air-conditioners and geysers (both extremely important in Gurgaon given the weather). Then, there was another level with fifty percent backup, though I didn’t particularly understand it. The individual houses in the city, though, had no backup, and people living there had to make do with inverters.

Now, suppose that magically Haryana were to become a power surplus state, would the state government be able to provide uninterrupted three phase power supply to Gurgaon? I would think not, for there are several “private players” in that city whose source of profits and wealth is derived from the fact that they provide backup power supply. Think of all those people who invested in DLF flats because they had “one hundred percent power backup”. Now, with power backup not being a distinguishing factor, these flats will lose in value since they cannot command the same kind of premium as they used to (rather, the supply of “apartments with assured power supply” goes up, thus reducing demand for the only ones that offered this luxury earlier). Then, there are scores of generator and inverter dealers in Gurgaon, who again depend on the power shortage for their livelihood. And so forth.

It doesn’t appear as if Haryana has power shortage any more (recently, Karnataka bought power from that state to tide over its power crisis). However, there are enough powerful lobbies in Gurgaon who depend on power cuts (!! ) for their income and wealth, and it appears they have managed to lobby the government there (officially or unofficially) to block the provision of assured power supply. The moral of this story is that once “public goods” start being provided by private players, it is hard to displace them, and this results in a lifetime of inefficiency.