India’s electricity distribution sector has been in complete havoc for decades and it all mainly boils down to corruption – on the state level (State Electricity Board), the consumer level and the political level. State governments often allocate power dishonestly, for political reasons or to keep certain corporations happy. Consumers often ‘steal’ electricity instead of paying for it or bribe officials to get more than their share. Nearly 75% of the respondents in rural India who interact with the electricity department have experienced corruption sometime or the other.
Here are some examples of how corruption in this sector happens on three levels.
Political level: Uttar Pradesh, a state with over 200 million people, finds that electricity theft is very significant during the years when the state assembly election is held. Nearly a third of all electrical power in Uttar Pradesh is unaccounted for, mainly due to technical errors, meter tampering, and theft. The local politicians in power are more likely to let electricity theft go unpunished close to elections so that they get re-elected. Some other reports also find that electricity bills are more likely to go unpaid in areas marked by politically active criminals.
State level: According to official data, the government has spent hundreds of crores to make sure rural areas in Bihar are electrified. However, the ground reality is completely different. Contracts for rural electrification are divided between the 2 public sector undertakings – Power Grid Corporation of India (PGCI) and National Hydel Power Corporation (NHPC). The state electric board vigilance cell complained that not even 10% of villages were electrified when 90% of the payment was made to the 2 PSUs. To this, PGCI defended by blaming the board and the state government for not making land available for power stations, and saying that 1,700 km of conductors were stolen from them. Basically, the state board and the PSUs were pointing their fingers at each other while the people suffered in the dark.
Consumer level: Millions of consumers have to visit the electricity departments for reasons such as non-receipt of the bill, meter related issues, connection-related complaints and supply related issues. Most of the respondents are often asked to pay bribes to these departments so that their concerns and complaints are heard. Corruption runs deep in the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB). The ground level field staff themselves claimed that their senior officials asked them to overcharge for services like name transfer, reconnections, replacement of burnt meter, etc. Besides this, none of the senior officials are found in their seats between 2-3pm which is the hour for attending customer grievances. Luckily, the TNEB Chairman has recently taken some efforts to make the system more transparent.
While many employees have bribery charges against them, only a small number have been identified and charged, and the big sharks, as usual, have escaped the law. As a solution to the larger picture, there should be a proper policy formulation in a sector as crucial as this. India cannot deliver inclusive development without equal and affordable power to everyone.