The grid thief of Kanpur

Political parties have found a political opportunity in electricity shortfall.

Shivam Vij July 11, 2013
The writer is a journalist in Delhi whose work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times and The Friday Times. He tweets @DilliDurAst

A new documentary film, Katiyabaaz, presents a problem that I’ve been struggling with. Although the film is set in Kanpur, it’s a problem that faces many parts of South Asia. The film-makers, Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar, obstinately refuse to offer possible solutions. With catchy lyrics and music, the film celebrates Kanpur, its people, and this messed-up system. It’s a snapshot of who we are. It’s when you think about the film that it disturbs you.

The film’s anti-hero is a thief — Loha Singh helps a lot of people steal electricity in Kanpur. He connects the illegal wire that is known in north India as katiya. Katiya is the sort of simple solution to life’s problems that South Asians feel very smart about. It’s an example of jugaad, the shortcut to problem solving that’s now integral to pop management theories.

As Loha Singh goes about connecting katiyas, the Kanpur Electricity Supply Corporation (KESCO) struggles with plans to make people pay for the electricity they use. KESCO officials go with police parties to raid houses, check meters, threaten police cases, collect fines and remove katiyas. But the heroic task is hampered, if not by the corruption of KESCO officials then by the public, which threatens them with violence. There was even a case that a policeman was burnt alive by the people. If the Kanpur administration was to seriously attempt to make people pay for electricity, there would be riots that would exceed the scale of the Hindu-Muslim violence Kanpur has seen rather often.

Loha Singh says in the film that KESCO only goes after the poor who steal relatively little electricity. A local politician named Irfan Solanki takes on the KESCO chief saying that if KESCO cannot guarantee uninterrupted power supply, it has no right to ask the people to pay for the meagre electricity they do get. KESCO says that it cannot provide 24/7 power supply if people won’t pay for it. As it is, the electricity rates are subsidised. As the film takes us through this cat-and-mouse game, elections arrive. Electricity is an issue in every politician’s speech in the film, including one by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Irfan Solanki wins the election and the KESCO chief who was trying to reform the situation is given a “punishment posting” elsewhere.

The people of Kanpur, rich and poor, are so used to free electricity they think it’s their birthright. There are people who do most of their cooking on a hotplate because the cooking gas cylinder isn’t free (yet). This is the story of not just Kanpur or Uttar Pradesh but many parts of India. In 2011, the Indian power sector’s transmission and distribution losses were 24 per cent. If these consumers could be made to pay up, the government would have more money to spend on power generation.

Loha Singh is right that they don’t go after the rich: big culprits in electricity theft are industries, which, of course, fill the pockets of politicians. One industrial unit, when told that its free electricity party was over, shut down. Its costs were no longer competitive.

If the party in power goes after everyone who steals electricity, the opposition will win sympathy and votes. Instead of leading the way to enlightenment, leaders lead the people to doom — which makes you wonder about democracy. Oops, I didn’t say that. Political parties have found a political opportunity in electricity shortfall. Which place will have more load-shedding than others depends on whom its voters voted for in the last election. The film-makers tell me that it was only in the 1990s, as political competition between parties increased, that a new electricity mafia rose and offered people the chance to get electricity without paying for it.

I think threatening people and forcing them to pay up is not going to work. The state should, instead, think of rewarding them for paying up: and the reward can only be uninterrupted supply. Electricity theft is only the second reason why India is power deficient. The main reason is the government’s own inability to efficiently use India’s coal reserves, not to speak of other means of electricity generation. If the state gets its act together, the people might follow. Or not!

Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2013.

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