The staff at Dhoom Manikpur’s electricity substation are accustomed to what they call “hot talk”. Who can blame people for losing their temper when faced with a power cut at the height of the north Indian summer, reasons Neeraj Sharma, a junior engineer at this remote outpost of Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (UPPCL). He won’t say in female presence how hot the talk can get, but it’s safe to presume that family members are invoked.
“In summer months, when the load (on the substation) becomes uncontrollable and interruptions are frequent, it’s common for people from the villages around here to walk in and threaten our employees,” Sharma said.
The substation supplies electricity to households and industries across a 21-kilometre radius of this region bordering Delhi.
On 20 April, things went beyond hot talk. “At 4.30pm, the power operator on duty here, Satveer Singh, an ex-army man who believed in following the rules, cut off power supply to the rural areas as a safety measure because a storm was on its way. He immediately received a call from one Neetu Gujjar from Badhpura village demanding that power be restored. Singh was used to explaining things patiently to the public so that’s what he did on that day as well,” said Sharma.
The day’s temperature was running high and so were tempers. At 4.50pm, Gujjar charged into Singh’s office, brandishing a gun. “Neetu said ‘put on the power’. My uncle said he will do that after the storm passes over,’’ Sunil Tomar later wrote in his complaint at Badalpur’s police station. “Neetu started abusing him, my uncle protested, and in response Neetu opened fire at him. Uncle fell down. Uncle’s colleagues and I tried to restrain Neetu but he fired his way out of the gates,” the nephew added. At 5.20pm, Satveer Singh died on his way to a hospital in Ghaziabad.
After three years of legal wrangles over the terms of sale and purchase, Andhra Pradesh stopped its supply of electricity to Telangana over unpaid dues of Rs 4,440 crore in June 2017. The next day, Telangana snapped the flow from the opposite side claiming a pending bill of Rs1,676. 46 crore.
Things get uglier between distribution companies and individual consumers over unpaid bills or active theft of electricity.
A large number of consumers see nothing wrong in stealing electricity or refusing to pay bills. Some simply can’t access or afford a legitimate connection; others expect governments to provide electricity free of cost. “We are talking dues of Rs 1 lakh or 2 lakh; it leads people to extreme steps. It’s common to see young people in these villages carrying expensive guns,” said Neeraj Sharma of UPPCL who recently came out of his office to find his car vandalised. His substation files a hundred first information reports (FIRs) at the local police station every month.
The Noida Power Corporation Limited (NPCL), a private company that supplies electricity to 118 villages around Greater Noida near Delhi, divides them into “soft” and “hard,” based on their relative population of migrants and locals. Visits to “soft” villages can be accomplished with assistance from the company’s own bouncers, but a police contingent must accompany them on inspection trips to “hard” villages.
Visitors stream in and out of Subodh Kumar Tyagi’s office in Greater Noida all day; only some of them are polite. The general manager at NPCL identifies one as a “shooter” from a village gang who wants him to take back an FIR against a defaulter and another as a political hopeful who wants pending dues pardoned for a string of people who have followed him to his office. These visits usually follow inspections by NPCL’s officers who have booked 15,000 cases of electricity theft over the past three years. Five of the company’s employees were beaten up last August while they were inspecting homes for electricity theft in Tughlakpur village in Greater Noida. Three ended up in a hospital.
On May 18 , an NPCL team visited a “medium” village in Greater Noida. Members of the team (junior engineer, assistant, lineman, videographer, bouncers, police constables) know what they are going to find before they get out of their cars and walk down the slip road. Stringy black cables crisscross the village, stealing power from the company’s electricity poles. Most of the company’s meters are either defunct beca- use of long-pending dues or missing, and most consumers express dismay at being told that electricity doesn’t come free. The team also knows how quickly such disappointment turns into anger. Five minutes is all they spend dealing with one household: the team leader confronts the head of the family, his assistant writes out a notice, the line man climbs up the nearest pole and scissors the unauthorised cable, and the videographer captures it all.
In Delhi, the list of problematic pockets grows longer every year. “These include Najafgarh, Jaffarpur, Mundka, Badarpur, Yamuna Vihar, Daryaganj, Dallupura etc. In these areas, AT & C (aggregate technical and commercial) losses still range between 25% and 50%,” said a BSES spokesperson who didn’t want to be named. BSES, Delhi’s biggest power distribution company, estimates an annual loss of over “Rs 600 crore to discoms and consumers from power theft”. Most localities in his list lie on Delhi’s fringes where poverty and crime shadow each other. Few inspection raids to these parts of the capital are uneventful; many end up in mob attacks. An engineer lost his life in one last year.
This year has been no different. On February 28, a 20-member BSES team was attacked by a mob in Kamruddin Nagar, “a high-theft area”, in outer Delhi and a supervisor took a serious blow to his head. “The area is full of illegal factories making plastic goods that run on stolen electricity 24/7. Verbal threats and stone pelting are common when you visit the site,” said the injured supervisor. “On this day, 20 people, their faces covered, surrounded us the moment Delhi Police officers accompanying us left us to eat lunch. We were hit by iron rods. My head started to bleed; it took six stitches at the hospital.”[Courtesy Hindustan Times]