The electricity crisis

Free electricity facility for the privileged must be overhauled to provide relief to deserving consumers

September 17, 2023


D

oling out electricity units to select officials has been a part of the problem in the energy sector. Most of the ills of electricity generation, transmission and distribution can be better addressed in a few years through a concerted effort if everyone is given electricity on the same terms and conditions. Ending unlimited free electricity can resolve the twin problems of bogus billing and outages.

In the backdrop of high power bills and subsequent countrywide protests, Prime Minister Anwaar-ul Haq Kakar showed rare empathy towards power consumers. The feeling should translate into concrete action by employing an innovative approach and taking bold steps for creating identical terms for all energy users.

We have already seen the outcome of ‘paradise islands’ approach being adopted by policy makers that has been set in place for several decades. It has resulted in disappointing outcomes in power and other sectors as these incentives give incredible benefits to the privileged at the cost of the common man.

The case of providing free commodities to those who need it the least can be illustrated with an example. During a visit to spacious Government Officers’ Residence-I (GOR-I) along The Mall several years back, this scribe noticed that a pickup with a green number plate was delivering fresh milk to each of the government houses. It turned out to be a home delivery service from a government-owned farm to those who virtually have already everything delivered to their doorsteps, whether it be power, privilege or persuasiveness.

The case of free electricity and its exclusive supply to a privileged class is no different. The number of officials benefiting from free electricity runs into hundreds of thousands. As many as 173,000 employees are annually given around 400 million free electricity units worth billions of rupees. Present and former presidents, prime ministers, judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts, as well as other influential employees of power companies, are entitled to free electricity.

Many of them also get outage-free dual power supply. In such an arrangement, they virtually become immune to any problem the other consumers face. In contrast, imagine the plight of an ordinary power consumer. He is billed excessive amounts by the distribution company even after the outages.

The powerful persons including employees of the power companies can play their role in improving services of distribution companies if they get electricity at the same rate and in the same fashion.

A ‘power’ allowance equal to free units should be provided to such persons. By monetising free electricity, not only will these individuals get firsthand knowledge of power sector woes but the part of circular debt, running into billions of rupees, will be reduced.

Free electricity units also encourage false billing by the power distribution companies as such privileged consumer seldom care how much they are billed. In certain cases, power companies’ officials are entitled to unlimited units. This allows distribution companies to charge them as they want at the cost of national exchequer.

A solution to this problem is to provide a power allowance equal to free units to such persons. Monetising free electricity will not only make these individuals aware of power sector woes but also reduce the circular debt, running into billions of rupees. Currently, the subsidy payable to electric distribution companies is routinely delayed by the government and leads to swelling of the circular debt.

In India, through an Act, all meter-less connections were removed. There is no concept any longer of free electricity. The case of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka is similar.

Talking to The News on Sunday, Shishir Arya, a senior journalist based in central Indian city of Nagpur, says: “There is no free power supply for anyone in today’s India. Metered power connections are a legal requirement. So, whosoever uses electricity, has to pay.”

To a question, he said: “There is also no quota of free electricity for high ups in the government or judges as part of salary package. Individuals, institutions, commercial concerns – everyone - buys electricity at market rates.”

Power rates are competitive in India due to the fact that electricity exchanges have already been introduced by various state governments under the concept of multi-player power market. This gives consumers the choice to switch to the most competitive power company. Only farmers in Maharashtra are given subsidised power to help them lower their cost of production.”

To a question about providing free electricity to vulnerable power consumers, Rashid Mahmood, the federal energy (Power Division) secretary, says that the idea of facilitating small-scale power users was no doubt good. “However, it is only possible if you have fiscal space for spending billions of rupees on this initiative.”


The writer is a senior reporter