More than a year after India's capital privatised the supply of electricity as a solution to massive power theft, the pilferage continues -- thanks to silent political patronage. Fed up with inaction on this problem, the Supreme Court on Mar. 8 directed the setting up of seven special courts to deal with cases of theft that are responsible for the disappearance of a massive 50 percent of electricity delivered. The orders of the apex court were in response to public-interest litigation by a lawyer, Ranjit Kumar, who blamed the continuing power crisis in the capital to power theft.
Curiously enough, the Delhi government made the plea that it did not have the powers to appoint officers who could make assessments of thefts. Its counsel Wasim Qadri told the court that the losses were due to inadequate capacity and high transmission and distribution losses, apart from a lack of accountability. Kumar said that so far, there have been no appointment of inspectors empowered to investigate the premises of consumers suspected of pilfering power although provisions existed under the Electricity Act 2003 that mandated privatisation.
When parliament passed the bill in May 2003, it made metres compulsory and made power theft a criminal rather than a civil offence. This move raised hopes that thousands of crores worth of electricity losses the country suffers each year from theft would stop. The bill was encouraged by World Bank assessments and by prominent figures such as the distinguished scientist and parliamentarian Raja Ramanna. In an interview, Raja Ramanna said that "politicians have ignored power thefts in their constituencies because they feared to take action that could affect their votes." He said it was common knowledge that meter readers, linesmen and billing clerks do not read meters, bill or collect and that many benefit from personal payments and political protection.
Robbers and barons
Independent studies of the phenomenon of large-scale theft have shown that the perpetrators tend to be well-to-do citizens who maintain airconditioned homes rather than poor people who live in the slums and may tap power off overhead cables to light up their shanties. A study conducted in 2001 by the now wound-up Delhi State Electricity Board showed that a single home in the affluent district could consume as much power as 500 households in a slum resettlement colony. "Commercial establishments are the main culprits and they have been joined by a section of the affluent middle class who resort to luxury consumption for their airconditioners and geysers," said Probir Purkayastha of the Delhi Science Forum (DSF).
The few raids that have ever been carried out have been on consumers that have been drawing vast amounts of power to run such industries as electro-plating units. Moreover, these happened only after complaints have been pending against them for several years.
India has the reputation of having the highest transmission and distribution losses in the world, ranking above the Dominican Republic with its 38 percent losses, Burma 36 percent and Bangladesh at 33 percent. Losses are also owing to the fact that many power utilities in the provinces deliver electricity to the farming sector free of charge or have a low, flat rate irrespective of actual consumption.
According to the government's Central Electricity Authority (CEA), there even are numerous "unauthorised connections" that are a "law and order problem". The CEA has called for "strong administrative will" to stop the pilferage but this seems to be missing, even in the national capital. According to government estimates, the power sector needs to get non-state players to invest at least $200 billion and double generating capacity in the next 10 years. But existing state-owned utilities have run up debts totalling $10 billion - and this is another deterrent to investors.