The Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir has been reeling under severe power cuts, with 50-80% parts of the UT facing blackouts. Over 20,000 employees of the Jammu and Kashmir Power Development Department (JKPDD) went on an indefinite strike last Friday to protest against the privatization of the sector. While the strike ended yesterday, the power cuts and the arguments between the two tussling parties have left a lot to be desired.
After the Modi government’s ‘Guru Purab’ bomb (when it repealed the revolutionary three farm laws), the government has once again pulled its punches back in J&K.
Government accepts the protesters’ demands:
Reportedly, after the strike, the central government was forced to rush in the Indian Army electrical corps soldiers as well as engineers from several public electricity enterprises to salvage the situation.
However, it was a temporary fix and thus the government invited the protesters to sit across the table and discuss a way out. On Tuesday, J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha addressed the media and informed that the strike was over after the government accepted the demands of the striking JKPDD staff.
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Clearing the rumors that the employee’s salary was delayed, Sinha said, “It’s unfortunate that people who didn’t want to change the system, bring a difference in the lives of people are the one’s objecting to the reforms. We talked to them and I want to tell the audience that not a penny is left of any employee,”
The agreement was reached between UT administration and representatives of component unions under the J&K Power Employees and Engineers Coordination Committee (JKPECC) led by Sachin Tickoo and Jaipal Sharma.
Reportedly, on December 4, the government had announced the privatization of power assets through a joint venture of its transmission, and part of distribution corporations with Power Grid Corporation of India. Since then, the employees of the discom went rogue and demanded that the government revert to old methods.
The ‘efficient’ handling by the state discom:
It is pertinent to note that under the ‘able’ handling of the public sector employees of JKPDD, the UT recorded aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses of 60.5% in March 2020.
TFI’s senior editor Shubhangi Sharma attributed the loss under ‘Technical and Commercial losses’ — a pseudonym for wide-scale corruption.
She tweeted, “Jammu and Kashmir reported the highest amount of losses in power distribution this year. 60.5% loss listed under ‘Technical and Commercial losses’, a pseudonym for wide-scale corruption. Entire villages & many town areas skip paying electricity bills, bribes take care of them.”
Reforms are required to realize the UT’s full potential:
Moreover, by bending in front of the raucous protestors, the government is stopping the UT from realizing its full potential. J&K has potential to generate nearly 20,000 MW of power — including nearly 12,000 MW, over 3,000 MW, and 500 MW in the Chenab, Jhelum, and Ravi basins respectively.
However, presently, only about 1,000 MW is generated by hydel power projects and 2,200 MW by projects owned and operated by NHPC. The current capacity further falls drastically in the winter months by an additional 200-250MW, due to fall in water levels.
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Such is the dire situation that the UT spends Rs 6,200 crore annually on power purchases while its revenue realization is just Rs 2,600 crore on account of tariff collected from consumers. The revenue deficit of Rs 3,600 crore is borne by the J&K government out of its kitty.
While the government incurs the loss, the babus grow richer. It is common knowledge in J&K that the power department is heavily involved in corruption. When the electricity bills are dispatched, the homeowners have two choices. Either pay the bill in full through legitimate means so that the money goes straight in the government’s coffers or pay a small amount which is technically a bribe to an electricity official which goes straight in his pocket.
The second alternative is cheaper and thus, most of the villagers and city dwellers tend to become part of the said modus operandi. Just like Arvind Kejriwal’s mirage of ‘free electricity’ in Delhi, the UT of J&K has worked out its own version.
Private players could have fixed the problem:
Every year, consumers complain that the JKPDD, which is responsible for the transmission and distribution of electricity in the region, resorts to unscheduled power cuts. The department’s lackadaisical attitude is often blamed for the mess.
The introduction of private players can effortlessly fix this problem. Private entities are known for being cost-saving, minimizing losses using creativity and innovation.
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And if they manage to create a seamless distribution service, the public would naturally levitate towards them, leaving the discoms battling for survival or if we perceive the jar half-full – pushing them to improve their services.
When in the hands of state and state-owned regulators, there is often a feeling of lethargy and complacency which ultimately becomes the characteristic ‘defining’ trait of such organizations. Filing a complaint or merely calling and asking about the status of a power cut appears a Sisyphean task.
The power operators do not pick calls, cut the power unnecessarily at unscheduled times, and most importantly, there is no transparency or accountability over their actions. This is a form of corruption that has fettered for long and we as the public have legitimized the behaviour.
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Moreover, the sector is littered with corruption, including in the tendering process of materials and important supplies for the industry, where the process is completely hijacked by the state governments in favour of their favourite babus.
The government is still sitting on the Electricity Amendment Bill 2021, hearing the supposed stakeholders and accepting their demands. The J&K episode once again proves that the government needs to stay sharp and unwavering on its decisions or otherwise, no reform can be brought in any sector.
The government must push against the unions and implement the power sector reforms as soon as possible. India still has one of the lowest electricity consumption per capita, and since power consumption is directly proportional to GDP growth – the reforms are the absolute necessity.