In 2015, battling the massive issue of power theft in the state, Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (UPPCL) began publicising a lesser known provision of the Electricity Act – ‘Voluntary Disclosure of Power Theft’. Consumers were encouraged to own up to the crime of power theft or ‘katiya’, as it’s called popularly, and receive the benefit of no FIR being lodged against them. The penalty for those who would only be one-fourth of the fine generally imposed.
Fast forward to April 2017, when the State Minister of Power Shrikant Sharma said that the department would now be taking severe action against electricity theft of any kind: ‘A person involved in theft of electricity for the first time can be imprisoned for up to five years, while a second time offender can be sentenced for up to seven years.’
It is safe to assume that these measures did not match up to the government’s expectations, because between April and October, drives against katiya had intensified. The Principal Secretary (Energy) of State, Alok Kumar announced the State’s decision to almost double the number of theft detection squads – from 33 to 55 – in order to deal with electricity theft and to meet the year-end goals of the Ujjwal Discom Assurance Yojna (UDAY). Kumar also added that the Department of Home is ‘working on nominating a designated police station in every district which will lodge FIRs in case of power theft’. Needless to say, this gave power into the hands of the police force to hit out or square up personal agenda against the powerless in the areas they manned – powerless, in more than one sense of the word that is.
In January 2018, Prime Minister Modi’s constituency of Varanasi came up with another solution to tackle the crisis of power theft – distribution cables were laid out underground. But this apparently did not deter power thieves, causing the officials in the district to plan out their own ingenious methods in the fight against power theft. This involved barging into homes at the crack of dawn, to take people by surprise and to then proceed to check manually for faulty lines in their homes. The idea would be that they would be unprepared to hide anything, not to mention sleepy. If it sounds a tad aggressive and perhaps over the top, then you must listen to what the residents of Koniya village in Varanasi have to say about it.
The last week of May saw one such drive in Koniya, when the electricity department officials conducted one of their routine power theft drives at 4 am. They call them ‘chhapa maar’. Rajkumar, a resident of Koniya shares, “Officials from the Electricity Department entered our homes without notifying us. They climbed onto our terraces in the middle of the day. When we protested, they became super-aggressive. We asked them politely to come outside and talk. But they warned us to co-operate saying that they would file fake FIRs against us, claiming that we were making death threats!”
Rajesh Rajbhar is furious, as he recounts how the officials were peeking into the houses without any permission. “They should knock on the door and ask first if they have these doubts. They have every right to stop power theft, but they have no right to peep inside homes.” Rajesh added that he pays his electricity bills on time – always – and that he feels betrayed by what happened.
Phoolmani shares her shock at seeing the officials mounting ladders to gain access to peoples’ balconies and terraces, “There are women in the house, shouldn’t they consider our privacy? They entered the house like robbers… 15-20 men. What is this?”
Rajesh also spoke of how the officials have never conducted any chaapa maar investigations in the nearby mill, choosing only to harass poor folks. “We have appealed to the department about our electricity bills being unusually high. Utilising electricity for just lighting a bulb and keeping a fan on cannot amount to 2000 rupees a month. The officials have paid no heed to this complaint, but have accused us of theft instead.”
When we meet up with RD Singh, Superintendent Engineer, a different version of the episode is offered. Refuting any claims of aggression on the part of the department, Singh claims that there was no barging, “We started the drive at 4 am because it’s good to start early and we have a lot to cover. If we can see the lines from outside, why will we go inside the house or climb on the roof? That day we were able to detect 65 houses with electricity theft. Most of them were using katiya and stealing in addition to having a connection. We have launched this campaign for those areas especially where there have been maximum cases of electricity theft issues of line loss.” Singh has marked the drive as a success, feeling perhaps closer to the katiya chapa maar targets that might be imposed on him.
Uttar Pradesh has always shown unusual trends with regard to power theft: For instance, a spike in the number of thefts is a common occurrence right before the elections. Electricity as an issue has always been a huge vote-garnering point, with the pre-2017 surreys rating it as among the top five reasons for the electoral mandate, and a populace that was considering change and a lean towards the Modi leher, which in turn promised every villager some Saubhagya.
Loosely translates as good fortune that we all know as The Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana.
Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.
Updated Date: Jun 14, 2018 15:59 PM