In our malnutritioned nation, electricity theft, besides many other kinds, is a common occurrence. Not only is this practice prevalent in rural areas, but it spreads its tentacles in urban areas as well. Visit any area around slums or any other tightly-packed locality and you will see the traces of this theft. The rate at which electricity is pilfered has affected the economy of the country widely. In this perplexing scenario, Ritu Maheshwari, an IAS officer, realised the need of the hour and took measures to curtail electricity theft or at least reduce its amplification.
Before launching this initiative, the 39-year-old knew such a fight would be dangerous to the extent of being fatal for her. Being a bureaucrat, she had to put her career at stake in order to save $10 billion of government’s money.
As a newly-appointed official at Kanpur Electricity Supply Co. in 2011, she installed new digital meters in approximately one-third of the consumer base against the will of higher officials. This was taking a huge risk but it exposed real-time meddling with the meters, thus reducing the graph of electricity theft. But her courageous steps did not go down people’s throat well and she was transferred out of Kanpur after a service of only 11 months.
The battle between these thieves and Maheshwari has been going on for the last six years now. It has been documented in Katiyabaaz, a Bollywood movie, released in 2014 that showed the use of unfair means to get electricity. She has also been spearheading Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attention towards cash-strapped states to ensure continuous supply of electricity in households, farms, and factories.
“Stealing power is considered a birthright by many, and anyone who tries to stop this is frowned upon,” says Padamjit Singh, a board member at Transparency International India and a member of the All India Power Engineers Federation, an industry advocacy group. “Power thefts the biggest challenge in ensuring electricity access to all citizens, which is absolutely necessary for equitable growth of our country.”
The condition is so awful that the retailers of electricity are able to recover only one-fifth of the actual sales revenue they do. Maheshwari has been taking steps to curtail this to her finest but to eradicate the problem from its root, there was the need of a foolproof and steady plan. After going through the data, she realised the steep loss people have to bear because of these unorganised thefts. This sums up to a massive amount of Rs 65,000 crore, says Sambitosh Mohapatra, a partner for utilities at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, India.
It became a dire task to buy electricity to reach out to the customers for the retailers. This led to unaffordable, inadequate or non-existent power to almost 30.4 crore people. For many others electricity comes through clandestine means for free.
Maheshwari took strong actions against such defaulters thus drawing attention of politicians who threatened her. However, being a strong-willed lady, she investigated these power theft secretly. But predictably, there were perpetrators who leaked the information of her investigation and people took measures in advance to safeguard themselves.
“People thought I could be fooled or manipulated, because what would a woman know about electricity and complex grids?” says Maheshwari.
Ritu graduated from Punjab Engineering College in 2000, and joined the Indian Administrative Service three years later. “Staff members at different levels were not happy with the kind of measures that were being taken, whether it was metering or raids on theft. Insiders passed on information.”
However, her efforts didn’t go in vain completely, she was able to save the loss of Kanpur Electricity Supply Co., or Kesco, by halving the power theft to 15.6 percent! Firms in Mumbai and Delhi noticed this trend and found it quite effective as it brought them greater revenue. This step also led to upgraded models of power grids by installing enhanced meters, transformers, automation, and new wiring supplies by companies such as Schneider Electric SE, Landis+Gyr Group AG, and Nokia Oyj.
“One of the state utilities recently told me that their transmission and commercial losses in rural areas were 25-to-30 percent, and if they can reduce it by one percent they can save Rs 185 crore,” said Prakash Chandraker, Vice President and Managing Director of a French electrical equipment maker’s Indian unit’s energy business. Maheshwari’s vision was similar to this and she was trying to take proper measure to replicate this idea.
There is a large scope of putting a cork on such practices in Uttar Pradesh which has a large rural cover where people use electricity through non-metered channels. The average loss of distribution is 35 percent in the same. In UP, 8.4 million of the state’s 29 million rural households receive non-metered electricity access, while 11.2 million are without any power, as the government data shows.
Maheshwari supervised technical and other measures used to reduce the commercial loss the industry had to go through. She aims to lower the theft by 15 percent by 2019 and improve the viability of power retailers. Currently, she has taken over as district magistrate in the suburbs of Delhi.
“The next two years will be very crucial as several states need to move from poor metering to smart metering,” she says.
It is a saying ‘to change the system, you must be a part of the system.’ Such is the step taken by Maheshwari who has taken forward the measure to remove theft of electricity that has been regularised. Her endeavor have brought more credibility to the consumers as well as retailers. A small step taken frames the blue print of the entire journey as proved by Maheshwari.