Mon, Jul 06, 2009 - Page 11 News List

FEATURE : Power thieves in India keep enforcers on the hunt


It was still dark outside when a man in his underwear answered the knock at the factory door, releasing a wave of heat and smoke from the noisy room behind him.

This, the man was told, was a power raid. The engineers storming past him were here to investigate electricity theft at this plastics mill.

The problem is rampant in India, but especially in New Delhi. When companies from the private sector partnered with the government in 2002 to distribute the city’s energy, more than half of electricity generated was stolen.

Since then, the energy companies have aggressively fought to stop the theft, a grueling battle that officials say they are slowly winning.

In a country facing massive power shortages, fighting power theft is an important way to make electricity distribution more reliable, officials say. Still, the shortfall is massive. In a nation of 1.2 billion, roughly 600 million people have no access to electricity at all, and those who do endure rolling blackouts that can last up to 12 hours. The demand is expected to grow by four to five times over the next 25 years, but the country’s antiquated power grids are already overwhelmed.

India’s energy deficit will be one of the most serious challenges facing Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he begins his second term, and his administration is exploring nuclear, solar and wind power to address the gap.

This industrial block in west Delhi, home the suspect plastics manufacturer, represents the front line in the war on energy theft.

Vikrant Seth, the private sector enforcement official leading the raid, reviewed the plans in the pre-dawn darkness. He hoped this would be a big one — four police officers would accompany the team in case things turned violent.

Seth is one of the many people fighting to clean up the system.

Many Indians have a long-standing reluctance to pay for power, dating back to the era when the state controlled nearly the entire economy, including the energy sector, and securing a legal power connection could take a lifetime. Power companies across the country lose an average of 40 percent of the power generated, according to a 2007 government report. The situation was especially bad in New Delhi — the same report called the capital’s state power company “a corrupt and inefficient monopoly.”

Many people illegally tapped into the neighborhood connection, betting that the authorities were too slow, or too corrupt, to stop them. The resulting cobweb of power lines helped push the capital’s electric company more than US$3 billion in debt in 2002.

That year, subsidiaries of Reliance ADA Group and Tata Group, two of India’s most powerful conglomerates, entered a partnership with the government to distribute power in the capital and halt the losses. Reliance and Tata had impressive track records in Mumbai where power distribution losses are among the lowest in the country.

Through dozens of power raids every week, among other strategies, they have managed to dramatically reduce theft in Delhi. BSES, the Reliance subsidiary that handles two-thirds of Delhi’s power, has sent more than 650 people to prison. By the end of last year, BSES, where Seth works, had cut theft from around 52 percent in 2002 to 28 percent. Seth’s bosses want to bring that down to 10 percent.

Before dawn on a recent Saturday, Seth corralled his men to review details for the three raids planned for the morning. When his crew was ready, Seth hopped into a white van, part of a large convoy, and headed for the first target.

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