The Age-defying Spirit of entrepreneurship
Thiruvananthapuram: At the Global Investors Meet (GIM) held in 2003, the Government of Kerala invited private players to take up Small Hydro Power (SHP) generation projects by proposing 61 projects to be developed on Build Own Operate and Transfer (BOOT) basis. In 2004, after finishing the tender process, the government accorded sanction to 13 projects – five Captive Power Producers (CPP) and eight Independent Power Producers (IPP). On December 22, 2010, the then Power Minister A K Balan dedicated the 3 MW Iruttukanam SHP project to the nation set up by Viyyat Power Private Limited, the first-ever power plant to have come up in the private sector in the IPP category supplying power to the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) in the history of Kerala. But what makes it more historic and perhaps one-off is the inspiring story of the entrepreneurs themselves. P Damodaran Nair, the Managing Director of Viyyat Power, was 68 when the project was commissioned while his wife Syamala Nair, the Chairperson, was in her late 50s. The couple proved that age is not a bar if you have the passion and commitment to chase your dream.
It’s an inspiring real-life story which goes on to show that entrepreneurship is not all about youthhood. A couple in their middle age setting out to establish a small hydel power project and accomplishing it, overcoming many hurdles. This fiction-like story of P Damodaran Nair and Syamala Nair, the founders of Viyyat Power, becomes all the more engrossing when one realises how difficult it is to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and negotiate other maze of challenges to set up a small-scale unit let alone a hydel power project, even in the prime of one’s youth. But more than the power it generates, the grit of the couple, which helped see the project through, is the essence of this story; the crowning glory of entrepreneurship!
From its inception in 2010 till August 2018, Viyyat Power’s Iruttukanam SHP Plant had generated 170 million units of electricity which, in other words, is sufficient to meet the entire power requirement of the State for almost three days.
But the script of the fiction-like entrepreneurial journey of the couple has a compelling element of resilience as well. Amidst the devastating floods in August 2018, tragedy struck Viyyat Power as the power station was almost completely destroyed in a series of landslides. However, the Nairs were relentless in their pursuit of getting it back on the rails. With the support of their staff, Viyyat Power plant resumed full-fledged operations on July 8, 2019. “It took three-and-a-half months for us to remove the debris from the powerhouse floor. Mud, boulders, soil; altogether it was around 5500 cubic metre of debris,” recollected P D Nair, as he is popularly known.
I met the couple at their residence at Karyavattom in Thiruvananthapuram. The shock of that massive disaster was still writ large on his face as he spoke. “However, by the grace of Sri Viyyat Chamundeswari Saraswathi Ganapathi, our family deity, there were no casualties. All our employees were safe,” Nair said.
“That’s what gave us the courage to revive the project. For us, they are not employees but an extension of the family,” added Syamala.
Moreover, we have received immense support from our partners – Satish G Pillai and M S Balakrishnan Nair. Our son Tushar D Nair who is also a partner, and is based in the US, reached home two days after the incident. All three of them were with us when we visited the plant for the first time after the mishap,” she reminisced.
Satish Pillai is the Executive Director of Gulfar Al Misnad Doha while Balakrishnan Nair retired as Senior Engineering Manager from BHEL.
The Allan Monkhouse Effect
Ever since I came to know about Viyyat Power, I have been thinking about the reason behind the aged couple’s drive to undertake such a risky venture, particularly a hydro power generation project in Kerala. I asked, “With all your experience in the hydel power field, hasn’t it ever occurred to you that it may be a gamble, particularly at this age?”
“Besides my expertise in the field, there are three aspects which spurred me. One is the enormous scope for SHP in Kerala, my home state, which lies untapped. Secondly, it was the very thought that a professional never retires. And finally, the inspiration provided by Allan Monkhouse, whom I consider as the ‘father of micro hydel power generation in India’,” Nair told me.
He briefly sketched the life of Allan Monkhouse, a New Zealander who reached India in 1952 at the age of 64, for our readers. Monkhouse, an electrical engineer by profession and an expert in micro hydel power projects, and a visionary in rural electrification using standalone micro hydel power stations, came to India as part of the Colombo Plan, an intergovernmental collective to strengthen economic and social development of member countries in the Asia-Pacific region. He then worked under the Central Water and Power Commission (CWPC) from 1952 to 1958 and chalked out plans to set up micro and mini hydel projects in the villages of the Himalayan region. However, the CWPC higher-ups cold-shouldered his proposals. A determined Monkhouse, who was in no mood to give up, wanted to prove his point. In 1958, he designed and successfully set up a 5 KW micro hydel power station in Dehradun using his hard-earned salary to prove that standalone micro hydel power stations are the most effective option to electrify villages in the Himalayan region.
Though his efforts were much appreciated, the decision-makers in New Delhi still could not comprehend the practicality of his vision. Disappointed by the actions of the CWPC leadership, Monkhouse decided to leave the country. On his train journey from New Delhi to Bombay, Monkhouse met businessman O P Raheja who, after listening to the pathetic story, offered to arrange a meeting with Nanubhai Amin, the former Chairman and Managing Director of Jyoti Limited, Vadodara.
Inspired by his vision, Amin invited Monkhouse to join his company and undertake the power projects to electrify the villages in the Himalayan region. Thus Monkhouse and his team went on to set up a 50 KW micro hydel power station at Lahaul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh and electrified the neighbouring villages. Overall, he did 30 projects in the hilly regions of North and North Eastern India from Jammu & Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh. Through his work, he helped light up more than 5000 villages across the Himalayan belt before he left Jyoti in 1970 due to failing eyesight.
Meanwhile, a young P D Nair joined Jyoti Limited, Vadodara in 1969 after his seven-year stint with BHEL, Bhopal. “In 1973, when Monkhouse came to India for the last time, I was deputed to accompany him throughout the visit. He was completely blind by then. The three days I spent with him were truly inspirational. It was the turning point in my career,” said P D Nair, who later associated with the development of 106 micro, mini and small hydel projects in India. He was part of the team that set up the world’s highest-altitude power project at Rong Tong in Himachal Pradesh at an altitude of 12,800 ft. Nair was also involved in 19 projects in various countries, including USA, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Ghana, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea.
In Kerala, Nair helped develop the first mini hydel project in the private sector for Tata Tea Limited at Vaguarai Tea Estate in 1982. He also led the team from Jyoti that set up 2 MW Mattupatty hydel project for KSEB in 1994. Later, as the advisor to Flovel Energy, Faridabad he was instrumental in establishing more than half a dozen small hydel stations for KSEB starting from Poozhithode, Vilangadu and so on.
“When I retired from Jyoti Limited in 1999, I was also toying with the idea of setting up a hydel project in Kerala. The spirit shown by Monkhouse was still very much alive in my mind. If a foreigner could set such a glittering example despite hurdles in a faraway land, why couldn’t I, a native of this State, contribute something tangible utilising my four-decade-long experience in the field? That’s when the State Government invited private investors to take up small hydel power generation. And, the rest is history,” he said.
“P D Nair and I joined BHEL, Bhopal in 1962. Ever since, we have been close friends. Post retirement, in 2004, Nair persuaded me to join him in this venture and I am proud of my association with it. Wherever Nair worked, employers as well as colleagues held him in very high regard.”
Balakrishnan Nair | Ex. Director | Viyyat Power
“It has been a wonderful experience associating with P D Nair. His entrepreneurial journey is really inspirational. As you know, it is never easy to set up a project in a State like Kerala. However, braving all odds, he has set up Viyyat Power and is operating it successfully. Even when the project got badly damaged in the devastating floods, Nair and his wife Syamala demonstrated resilience, which is truly remarkable.”
Satish G Pillai | Director | Viyyat Power
The entrepreneurial journey has never been a cakewalk for P D Nair and Syamala. Despite being senior citizens, the powers that be had shown no mercy as they were made to run from pillar to post to obtain necessary approvals for the project. However, quite interestingly, Electricity Ministers of both the successive UDF and the LDF Governments stood by the couple whenever there was a crisis.
“Still, it took six long years for me to commission the project. In 2004, when I was pursuing the Iruttukanam Project, the Government of Himachal Pradesh approached me to set up an SHP project in the State at Kullu Manali. I had to decline the offer due to my commitment to Kerala. However, I had entrusted a friend of mine to undertake the work and a 3.5 MW SHP got commissioned in 2007. I was also invited to the function. The irony was that even after three years, I was still struggling to commence the real work of my project then. You could imagine the mental agony of an elderly citizen who ventured to give something back to his homeland after a long stint outside the State,” said Nair, beginning to disclose the hurdles he had to face as an entrepreneur.
“Let’s not get into those things in detail,” Syamala chipped in. But Nair begs to differ. “Our struggle would be a valuable lesson for many aspiring entrepreneurs out there,” he continued.
Viyyat Power project involved setting up of a diversion weir (8-m high and 49-m long) on the western Kallar river at Ambazhachal near Iruttukanam in Idukki district, construction of a 2.8 m dia ‘D’-shaped 712.5-m-long power tunnel and a 205-m-long 1.118 m dia (44 inch) penstock pipe branching out to two 700 mm dia (28 inch) pipes each entering the power house to feed 1.5 MW Capacity Turbine Generators. After power generation, the water would flow back to the Kallar River.
The implementation agreement with the State Government was signed on December 10, 2004. After purchase of project land, Nair approached the Kerala State Electricity Regulatory Commission (KSERC) on September 12, 2005 to obtain tariff approval so that he could sign Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with the KSEB. “PPA was important as it’s a must for me to apply for bank loans to finance the project. As per norms, KSERC was supposed to give approval or disapproval to tariff petitions within four months. However, in my case, the then KSERC Chairman was not even willing to accept the petition citing technical reasons. Finally, the project was given approval only on December 15, 2006. Later, I was able to sign a PPA with the KSEB only on June 7, 2007 after a further approval by the State Government. Overall, the project got delayed by 16 months,” he said.
A K Balan, the then Power Minister, laid the foundation stone for the project on December 16, 2008, and subsequently, the construction work commenced. Soon came the next hurdle in the form of court cases against the construction of a tunnel for the project. The 700-m-long tunnel for the project was passing 150 to 200 ft. deep underneath the land of 14 private landowners out of which only two people raised objection.
“They approached a local court and it issued an injunction against us. Our plea against the injunction in the District Court was also dismissed with cost. The tunnel was passing through at a depth of around 200 ft. from the earth’s surface. The petitioners argued that they have ownership of the landmass deep down up to the centre of the earth. That was when we thought that the project might have to be shelved after spending half the project cost. Being a hydel power project, location is of utmost importance. Unlike a commercial complex or a hospitality project, you cannot shift the location of the power plant,” said Nair, citing the reasons for approaching the High Court later.
“The High Court, however, took a different view. The Judge held that nobody could object to a small hydel power project that was meant to benefit the public at large, citing proprietary rights. He then directed both the parties to reach an out-of-court settlement within a month. Though none of the landowners had to give away even a tiny piece of land for the purpose, we expressed our willingness to pay Rs. 1 lakh to each as a goodwill gesture. However, the two petitioners sought a compensation of Rs. 1 crore each. Realising that the petitioners were trying to take undue advantage of the case, the High Court directed the government to acquire land – up to 5 m width – above the entire length of the tunnel under the Implementation Agreement,” Nair said.
Though the petitioners approached the Supreme Court, it rejected their Special Leave Petition. “If the Apex Court’s verdict had gone against us, we would have been in dire straits, for we had by that time invested more than Rs. 10 crore for the project. However, as he mentioned, we owe this to our family deity, Sri Viyyat Devi,” Syamala added.
In total, the couple found themselves entangled in 11 court cases – seven in lower court, three in High Court and one in Supreme Court – during the course of the project implementation.
But their problems did not end there. “As per High Court’s order, Idukki District Collector had to submit an undertaking before the local court saying that land would be acquired for the project. However, the then Collector maintained that the government should issue an order for acquisition before such an undertaking could be made. We again approached Minister Balan. Following his intervention, the Power Department issued an acquisition order based on the High Court verdict. In spite of that the District Collector insisted on getting an order from the Revenue Department. Again, we were back to square one. As per the relevant provisions of the Acquisition Act, any appropriate Government Department has the powers to issue orders to acquire land. When I pointed this out, the Collector asked me to at least get the Power Department’s order ratified by the Revenue Department. Once again, we approached the Power Minister. He took up the case with the then Revenue Minister and the issue was finally settled. Based on orders issued by the Principal Secretary of the Revenue Department ratifying the Acquisition order, the District Collector submitted an undertaking before the lower court and we were able to resume the work after almost a year. But for the strong intervention of A K Balan, the project would have been delayed indefinitely,” Nair said.
After receiving necessary clearances from various government agencies, including the Power Telephone Coordination Committee (PTCC), Viyyat Power commenced power generation from September 18, 2010 onwards and the project was formally dedicated to the nation on December 22, 2010 by Minister Balan. “Among the 13 projects allotted in 2004, we are the only company to finish the project till date. All other 12 projects have not yet seen the light of the day. Following our successful completion of the project, the State Government accorded sanction to start the second phase of work – to set up another 1.5 MW additional unit – on May 25, 2011. We completed the project on April 10, 2012, two-and-a-half years ahead of the stipulated completion date of November 7, 2014,” he said.
Unfortunately, Nair’s super efficiency proved to be counterproductive. “When I was awarded the work in 2011, the prevailing tariff approved by KSERC was Rs. 2.94 per unit. However, KSERC’s tariff prevailing on November 7, 2014 was Rs. 5.25 per unit. That means, if I had completed the project as per schedule specified by the Government in the contract, I would have got Rs. 5.25 per unit. The Indian Electricity Act says that efficiency is to be rewarded while determining tariff. Normally, a person is given due recognition for completing a project ahead of schedule. But here it is the other way round! Viyyat Power’s appeal in this regard is still pending before the Supreme Court,” he said.
"Faraway in the US, I was at work when dad called to inform me about the disaster. As I was shattered, it was Arathi, my wife, who helped me gain composure and plan the next step of taking the flight back home. It was the pet project of my father and hence, he was not inclined to heed the advice to scrap the project. With the unflinching support of his employees, dad was sure of rebuilding it."
Tushar D Nair | Director | Viyyat Power
“Whoever witnessed our power plant soon after the floods would not believe that we could revive it. Working with Viyyat Power, none of us ever felt that we are employees here. Nair sir and Syamala madam have always considered us as part of their family. Due to this affection and care, all of us stood by them in the crisis.
V V Rajan | Plant Manager | Viyyat Power
According to P D Nair, Kerala has the potential to set up numerous mini or small hydel power projects with a total capacity of 700 MW. “Electricity Minister M M Mani recently said that KSEB now generates only 30 per cent of the overall power requirements of the State. The remaining 70 per cent comes from outside. If we can implement those 700 MW renewable energy projects, it can significantly reduce the State’s dependence on energy sourced from outside the State that comes at a premium price. Besides cost, one should think about the number of jobs that could be created in the process,” said Nair, who also has plans to set up a 2 MW hydel project at Pazhukkakanam in Kottayam district.
However, he opined, new projects are less likely to come up unless KSEB takes a “broad-minded” approach. “In their view, the investors should complete the project first and only based on their actual cost the tariff should be fixed. This is not practical as entering into a PPA is essential for investors to secure loans from financial institutions. A mere comfort letter will not do. I don’t understand what KSEB is trying to achieve by taking such a stand in the case of small hydel developers at least below 5 MW capacity. KSEB needs to be magnanimous,” Nair argued.
He points out that our neighbouring states like Karnataka are taking a pro-active approach. “Karnataka has several mini and small hydel power plants in the private sector which together have a capacity of more than 500 MW. The BOOT period for the projects is 35 years from the date of commissioning unlike 30 years from the date of allotment in Kerala (Actually the developer gets only 24 years and 3 months from the date of commissioning). See, the future is renewable energy. It is high time that the Kerala Government also took appropriate policy decisions,” he said.
For the Iruttukanam project, Nair has invested Rs. 21.4 crore in Phase I. “Though the project estimate was Rs. 14.34 crore, the actual cost increased considerably due to the inordinate procedural delay during various stages of its implementation. For Phase II, we spent around Rs. 6.6 crore. In total, for both the work we took three loans from the SBI to the tune of Rs. 17.75 crore. Later, for the restoration of the project after the mishap in 2018, we had to spend another Rs. 18 crore. Since we had closed the earlier loans promptly, SBI again sanctioned another loan of Rs. 7 crore for this. To compensate the loss, I hope that the authorities will favourably consider our request to extend the BOOT period as well as to sanction a compensatory tariff,” said Nair.
Today, Viyyat Power produces 1,32,000 units of power every day when sufficient water is available. Since the resumption of its operations in July, the plant has generated 16 million units of power. The company employs 14 people at the power station, all hailing from the local village, and provides indirect employment to a dozen others. “As part of our social responsibility commitments, we provide educational scholarships to students of three schools in the region,” said Syamala, who leads such initiatives of the company.
Every year, KSEB is able to save a substantial amount as it procures power from Viyyat Power at a rate below the Average Pooled Purchase Cost (APPC). “For KSEB, the APPC is Rs. 3.74 per unit. From us, it purchases at Rs. 2.70 per unit. Even during peak time (6 pm-10 pm), when purchase is often made at a much higher tariff (Rs. 8 per unit to Rs. 16 per unit), we are given the same rate of Rs. 2.70 per unit,” Nair explained.
Finally, the Nairs have a message to all aspiring entrepreneurs. “We started this project at an age when others would have preferred to hang up their boots. A project can be materialised only if you work hard towards achieving your goal with a one-track mind. No amount of red-tapism and litigations can ever stop you from achieving success, no matter how old you are,” the couple signed off.
A sports enthusiast, P D Nair was a regular participant at athletics during his BHEL days in Bhopal. He emerged champion at BHEL Sports Meet in 1967. He then set a new State Record in the 5000 m track event, which remained intact till 1973.
‘The Divine Providence’
P D Nair recounts that dreadful night when landslide almost shattered his dreams
“In fact, Viyyat Devi’s blessing saved seven lives miraculously. The shift engineer, operator and driver were there inside the power station when the landslide occurred on August 9 at 1.30 am. The plant was shut down as per Plant Manager’s instructions at 9 pm the previous night when some portion of the switchyard protection wall caved in. The operator noticed that the turbine–generator room was getting fast inundated by the water flowing in and a single motor was found to be insufficient to pump out the water. The water level was found rising. To avoid flooding, the shift engineer and the operator installed another submersible pump by about 1 am. As the pumping continued, all the three climbed up to the ground floor pantry room to have a cup of tea. It was when the landslide struck the adjacent control room, breaker room, battery room and the office with a huge bang. In a moment, the wall collapsed and mud and boulders filled the 20-ft. deep turbine-generator hall in front of their eyes. Only the pantry room was untouched and so were my boys. All of them escaped rushing out through the door constructed for the third unit! Meanwhile, Plant Manager V V Rajan and his wife who were on the way to the power house were stopped by the police at night as the road to Munnar was closed. Hence, they could not reach there. Had they been there in the power house and all of them were not in the pantry room it would have been a different story. Initially, the shift engineer thought that the penstock pipe was ruptured. He telephoned the Plant Manager and informed him of the disaster of ‘penstock break.’ The Plant Manager telephoned our Financial Manager P K Suresh Kumar, who is staying near the dam site, to rush to the power house and close the Penstock valve. Suresh and his brother Sanjayan, who is also an operator of the power house, reached there at about 2 am on August 9, and found the penstock intact. However, noticing the buried power house, Suresh called me up over phone immediately and told me ‘our power house is finished, sir’, barely controlling his emotions. The first thing I asked was ‘what about my boys?’ ‘All are safe, sir,’ he replied, brimming with relief. ‘Thank God! I just want to hear that. We will rebuild the power house. Don’t worry’ was the only reply I could mumble before hanging up. But it didn’t end there. Suresh and Sanjayan began rushing back to their house on the bike through the same Aanaviratty road about 3 am when someone frantically signalled them flashing a torch, informing them at the height of his voice that the Aanaviratty bridge had collapsed. Sanjayan stopped the bike in time hardly three or four metres away from the bridge which was washed away in the landslide! I wish to believe that it was the divine presence of Viyyat Sarvabheeshta Varadayakar which saved their lives. Thus, in all, seven lives were saved by the grace of God. But for the miraculous escape of my boys I would have abandoned the project. I had to rebuild as it affects the livelihood of 18 families directly and almost equal numbers indirectly. It was a collective effort from various stakeholders that helped us complete the restoration work so quickly. Energy Management Centre Kerala supported us by lending the service of Dinesh Kumar, a consultant to oversee the restoration work. Kumar Group Total Designers and Ravi Kumar Associates also rose to the occasion and formulated new designs for the power station so as to prevent damage due to landslides in future. The prompt payments done by SBI General Insurance Company were also a boon for us. As an adhoc amount, SBI General paid me Rs. 1 crore soon after the incident and later Rs. 4 crore for the construction work.”
P Damodaran Nair
DoB: October 28, 1942
Parents: Late N Parameswaran Pillai and Late K Bharathi Amma
DoB: December 15, 1953
Parents: Late S Sivasankara Pillai and P Sumathi Amma
Family: Tushar D Nair (son), Arathi Tushar (daughter-in-law) and Anika Tushar (granddaughter)
In a first in Kerala, Viyyat Power obtained Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) registration from the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) on March 21, 2008. “Viyyat Power is the fourth company in India to receive the recognition. It is considered that when a CDM-certified project produces a million units of power, it saves 900 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission. Based on this, Viyyat Power has so far prevented 1,53,000-plus tonnes of carbon dioxide from being discharged into the atmosphere. “Once we get the CDM status, we are awarded CER (Certified Emission Reduction),” said Nair.