Girish Sant - Always Two Steps Ahead

[This is a textual reproduction of a tribute to Girish Sant that appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly issue of March 10, 2012]

We find it very difficult to write this article about our close friend and long-time colleague who left us suddenly on 2 February. This is a personal and professional loss beyond words – not only for us, but for the energy sector. We are still in a state of shock, disbelief and gloom. We wish to remain frozen in time, going about with a fond though irrational hope that he would appear in the office tomorrow. Writing this article would put an end to this fantasy. But write we must, and more important, get on with the work. Before we begin, we acknowledge that this is a consolidation of thoughts in the group and of his many friends1.

Girish, born in 1966, was so young and at the peak of his career when he left us. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering (1986) and a master’s degree in Energy Systems Engineering (1988) from IIT-Bombay. Since then he has been involved in research, training, and advocacy on techno-economic and policy issues in the energy sector. He was one of the founder trustees of Prayas, the Pune-based not-for-profit, non-governmental voluntary organisation known for its public interest-oriented policy analysis in the areas of health, energy and livelihood. Girish was the coordinator of the Energy Group. Before that, he worked in different organisations: as a consultant in the areas of industrial energy audit and performance review of renewable energy sources; with the System Research Institute researching the changing energy use and appliance usage with urbanisation; and teaching chemical engineering at Bharati Vidyapeeth College, Pune.

Prayas Energy Group (PEG) is well known for its pioneering work analysing the controversial Enron power project, making analytical contributions to the Narmada movement, building on the work of Amulya K N Reddy on integrated resource planning, making numerous pro-poor regulatory and policy interventions, developing innovations in end-use efficiency implementation and promoting the interest of developing countries in climate change negotiations.

What Was Special about Girish

Many remember Girish as an enthusiastic mountaineer. Like all seasoned mountaineers, he enjoyed climbing with friends as much as reaching the summit. He was no different at work – a constant dreamer and a creative innovator, a man who was always two steps ahead. Seeing much further and much more than most of us, he kept hurrying us to start many new things and drop doing some. Having a good pulse of the energy sector and its key actors, he was a conscience keeper, with whom many of us could test our ideas.

All those who met Girish remember him as a warm, sensitive person full of laughter. He was a perfect blend of rationality and emotion. His humility made him a lifetime learner. Girish was excellent in creating and cultivating friends cutting across ages, ideological shades and roles. Many sector leaders respected him and youngsters flocked to him for inspiration and guidance. It was interesting to see many well-meaning friends belonging to varied groups – grass-root organisations, trade unions, political parties, policy institutions, research organisations, utilities, financial institutions and regulators – who saw him as on their side. Even when they disagreed with him, none doubted his good intentions.

Journey in Energy

Girish started with excellent degrees in energy systems. Blended with this were his skills in critical enquiry and engagement in social issues, sensitivity to issues of the poor, spirit of innovation and teamwork. He went on a two-and-a-half decade-long journey in the energy policy land with many fellow travellers. It is interesting to trace this journey, which along the way saw changes in focus, fellow travellers as well as achievements2. A change in focus, linked to the external environment and a growing understanding of the sector could be captured in five phases, which have some overlaps. Fellow travellers kept changing, except some of us at Prayas who celebrated the journey for a longer time, and Girish was often the major partner.

The formative phase spans from 1986-1994, from the final years at IIT-Bombay till the beginning of activities that led to the formation of Prayas. As a student, Girish was a keen mountaineer and loved spending time in the Himalayas. Trekking in remote areas gave him a glimpse of the harsh reality of the outside world. After his MTech, Girish worked on renewable energy, energy conservation and taught in an engineering college. Reading and collective reflection on ways to engage with social issues continued. This led him to arenas such as hazards of industrial pollution (like the Bhopal disaster), debates on economic, social and gender inequities as well as struggles like the Narmada movement. Girish was involved in serious reading and discussions with friends like Sanjeevani, Vinay and Shripad who shared common values and had the idea of setting up a formal organisation for social engagement.

Girish’s firm belief that professional skills should be used to address pressing social questions led him along with his doctor and engineer friends to establish Prayas in 1994. The word “Prayas” means “focused effort”. The members of Prayas are professionals working to protect and promote the public interest, in general, and interests of the disadvantaged sections of the society, in particular.

The second phase (1992-97) saw Girish working with Shantanu on field surveys on energy conservation and understanding the work of Amulya K N Reddy, the Bangalore-based pioneer of the alternate paradigm on “energy for sustainable development”. Amulya Reddy’s work on least cost planning showed the importance of putting forth an alternate comprehensive plan to challenge the mainstream paradigm, which was promoting many power generation projects across the country3. Girish and Shantanu adapted Amulya Reddy’s work on Karnataka to Maharashtra and prepared an alternate power plan. Compared to the mainstream plan, this alternative least cost plan integrated end-use efficiency and renewable systems. It needed only half the generation capacity and cost only 60% of the mainstream plan4. Working on this and presenting this to a variety of audiences gave them an excellent grounding on the technical, policy and governance landscape of electricity sector planning.

Seeds of the third phase (1995-98) were sown while developing and presenting the Maharashtra least cost plan. The power sector actors appreciated the plan, but were keen to go ahead with massive generation projects. Girish realised that the gross inefficiencies in the sector needed to be tackled head on, even while strengthening the case for alternatives. This led to analyses of power supply to agriculture and the power purchase contract with Enron, the first multinational private power project in India. In the area of agriculture, the study brought out important issues: the high potential available to increase pumping efficiency, problems with estimating agriculture consumption and the skewed distribution of agriculture subsidy with the rich farmers cornering the maximum subsidy. Detailed techno-economic analysis of the Enron contract exposed many problems such as high capital cost, unwarranted incentives and unfair contract terms. Girish not only contributed to preparing an insightful analysis of these complex issues, but was also at the forefront in communicating this to a varied audience – policymakers, funding agencies, trade unions, farmer associations, academic and project-affected community.

The growing opposition to the Enron project, the scrapping of the contract, review by a state appointed commission and its reinstatement are well known5. Based on the experience of analysing the Enron project, similar studies were conducted for the Narmada Bachao Andolan and for a project in Uganda. All these showed how public interest was being neglected in the name of attracting private investment.

The fourth phase (1996-2004) marked a shift from project or issue-based analysis to a sector-based approach. Power was one of the first sectors to undertake market-oriented reforms from the early 1990s, when private players were welcomed in the generation sector. This was followed by reforms in the state electricity boards (SEBs) supported by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, beginning in Orissa in 1996. The Orissa reforms involving unbundling the SEB into generation, transmission and distribution companies, setting up a regulatory commission and gradually privatising the companies were presented as the solution to all problems in the power sector. Prayas was the first to prepare a public interest critique of Orissa reforms in 19986. This was followed by a comprehensive analysis of the intervention of multilateral development banks in the Indian power sector. The key argument of Prayas was that the crisis in the power sector has three dimensions, namely, the performance crisis (low technical and managerial efficiency), financial crisis (increasing losses, lack of capital) and governance crisis (control by vested interests, lack of democracy). All these dimensions are important, but the preoccupation of the mainstream actors was with the financial crisis. Prayas argued that democratising governance is the key to addressing the sector crisis, rather than focusing only on infusing capital or changing ownership.

Engagement with Public Policy

In this phase the PEG engaged with the newly formed electricity regulatory commissions by setting up democratic procedures and raising many public interest issues like high transmission and distribution losses. With a view to increasing informed participation in sector governance, Prayas organised activities focused on civil society organisations. Workshops were organised at the state, national and south-east Asian levels. This catalysed strengthening or formation of civil society groups in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which took up regulatory interventions and citizen’s awareness programmes. Publications like “Know Your Power: A Citizen’s Primer on the Electricity Sector”, “A Good Beginning But Challenges Galore – A Survey Based Study on Electricity Regulatory Commissions” were the first of their kind in the Indian electricity sector.

By the end of this phase, PEG had slowly grown in strength, having 10 committed researchers. Subodh, one of the key members branched out to form the resources and livelihood group of Prayas. Girish was a key contributor to this growth and also to the setting up of the new group.

The fifth phase (2003) marked many changes. The Electricity Act of 2003 was a turning point in the Indian power sector. Prayas analysed the impact of the Act on consumers (and future consumers) and gave many inputs for national electricity and tariff policies that were formulated as a follow-up to the Act. In addition to regulation and governance of the electricity sector, Prayas branched out to related energy issues like end-use efficiency, governance in natural gas and coal sectors, energy use in transport, policy issues in renewables and equity issues in climate change.

Based on the lessons in electricity governance, PEG participated in an international initiative covering governments and civil society groups from eight developing countries (India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Brazil, South Africa, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) to develop an assessment toolkit for electricity governance. The joint analytical work (with researchers inside and outside PEG) produced a unique report on Indian energy trends, which highlighted many important aspects of India’s energy sector, which were different from developing countries like China and, of course, the developed countries. This work contributed to changing the discourse in the climate debate by way of bringing climate equity into the forefront. Innovative and strategic intervention in the demand side management helped to break the deadlock in up- scaling the implementation. This covered policy, technology, manufacturing, markets and governance aspects. An early critique of the national solar mission helped to introduce competitive bidding and increase attention on small off-grid systems. Girish was one of the pioneers of the “Triple-E” approach in the energy sector that insisted that social equity and environmental sustainability were as important as economic viability in policymaking. Through his work he effectively demonstrated that such an approach is practically feasible.

In this phase, PEG grew into a stable group with 20 full-time researchers and networked with many others. Inspired by the dream of “energy becoming a development tool” and guided by the goal of “democratising energy governance for furthering the public interest”, PEG came to be known for its innovative, multidisciplinary, comprehensive, grounded policy analysis and advocacy. A relatively small organisation outside the mainstream, PEG gained the recognition of civil society as well as state institutions.

Taking the Work Forward

With mounting fuel, climate and governance challenges, the crisis in the energy sector is as overwhelming as ever. The mainstream response is limited this time also. In an article that appeared in Hindu Business Line on 30 January 2012, Girish had written:

"Limits to available energy resources are hurting economies and curtailing development in poorer countries. India, being more vulnerable to energy shortages than most other countries, needs to urgently implement a multi-dimensional solution to avoid a crisis… To avert economic hardship and work towards mitigating climate change, we must find answers to the energy conundrum soon. This is possible through a three-pronged strategy to ‘replace, improve, and reduce’." [What he meant was, replace fossil fuel-based energy sources with renewable, improve end-use efficiency and reduce consumption, especially of the rich.]

This is very characteristic of Girish – to pose the problem from a fresh angle and then suggest an innovative solution, workable within the existing framework. With his unique ability to analyse a given situation critically and constructively engage with multiple parties who may not necessarily agree with him, he was instrumental in creating a new niche for civil society organisations – to engage with policymakers on their own terms but still retain the independence and integrity to think outside of the mainstream. As someone put it, Girish was a class apart with his “insightful analysis, gentle advocacy and brilliant articulation”7.

All of us have enjoyed working with Girish, analysing issues and developing solutions. He played a pivotal role and there is no way of replacing him. However, he has also motivated and built a network of committed and competent individuals, within and outside Prayas, who are working on many pressing issues in the energy sector, with the rigour and values that he strived for.

We are touched by the words of consolation as well as appreciation for Girish’s work that have poured in through personal visits, phone calls, emails and the memorials. We are inspired by the expression of faith in Prayas to continue the work and affirmation of support. That these have come from people of varied backgrounds and ages, research and practice, government and non-government, Indian and international, public and private, left and not-so-left, is the wonder that is Girish.

In a short life, Girish earned the credibility and respect from a wide spectrum of people. He has left an indelible mark in the Indian and international energy sectors8. The vibrant environment we have together created and the support reaffirmed by our numerous friends give us the confidence to face the future challenges without him.


  1. Please see comments posted by Girish’s friends at the Prayas website.

  2. This is based on conversations with Girish, inputs from friends, Girish’s autobiographical article “I , We and Our Work” in the 2005 Diwali issue of Mauj – a Marathi magazine and the doctoral thesis “Sense-making in Turbulent Times – Every- day Strategic Changing by Indian NGDOs” by Wenny Ho, University of Amsterdam, 2007, available at:

  3. “A Development-Focused End-Use-oriented Electricity Scenario for Karnataka”, Amulya K N Reddy, et al, Economic & Political Weekly, 6 April 1991.

  4. This report and all of Prayas Energy Group’s publications are available at Amulya Reddy’s work is available at

  5. This has been covered through many articles in EPW including some by Prayas – Dabhol project PPA – 17 June 1995, Enron renegotiations – 9December 1995, Godbole Committee on Enron project – 9 June 2001, Restarting Dabhol – 18 June 2005.

  6. “World Bank-Orissa Model of Power Sector Reforms: Cure Worse Than Disease”, Economic & Political Weekly, 1 May 1998.

  7. To quote from another message: “The combination of his relentless commitment to the poor and his wisdom in questioning power structures, shaping the debate made him unique. I will remember Girish as a tiger: gentle in his manners, with soft paws, but absolutely sure and confident about using it when needed, in defence of public good.”

  8. For example, see this message: “Girish, your contribution to the work in the BASIC expert group gave us the opportunity to get to know you. I was struck by how your inputs into the complexities of multilateral climate talks were so firmly rooted in the realities of working at community level through Prayas…You will be much missed, also in South Africa. I will treasure the memory of the time we had together, and we will take forward the work”, Harald Winkler, University of Cape Town.