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Powered into a black hole

Despite privatisation, there is no change in the way electricity complaints are handled at the power discoms' complaint centres. Touts thrive, money exchanges hands and the people continue to suffer. Avishek G Dastidar reports.

delhi Updated: Jul 17, 2010 02:23 IST
Avishek G Dastidar

"It's a black hole in there. You'll get lost." That's Vijay's friendly advice. Vijay is a tout. "They will throw the rule book at you and leave you groping in the dark," he says.

Perched on the footpath across the road from power company BSES Rajdhani's complaint centre in Janakpuri, Vijay (35) "helps" aggrieved power consumers with what he calls "paperwork and formalities".

Privatisation and the emergence of IT-enabled services may have changed the power supply scene in Delhi, but it has failed to put Vijay, and hundreds like him, out of business at the 169 complaint centres spread across the city.

Vijay explains why: "You still need to know who to bribe and how much."

Delhi's electricity supply network has grown to a mammoth 35 lakh connections since 2002 when power distribution was privatised between the Tatas and Anil Ambani's Reliance.

The three private discoms — BSES Rajdhani, BSES Yamuna and North Delhi Power Limited — receive thousands of varied grievances daily.

Getting the meter rechecked to knock off some amount from an "inflated" bill is a common request. Fighting false cases of power theft are plenty. Changing the name of the owner in an existing connection, claiming the security deposit or even getting a new connection are some other nagging issues.

"Even simple things like fixing a streetlight can take a week while the norm is just 72 hours," says Pankaj Aggarwal, secretary general, Delhi RWAs' Joint Front.

And God help you if a fault in the underground cable network snaps the supply to your house. Officials will, in all probability, keep tossing your "case" around indefinitely over the "permission to dig the road".

The discoms also have an insatiable appetite for papers.

For every little problem, they need affidavits, legal undertakings, General Power of Attorney, photocopies, letters, sundry proofs and some more photocopies from the complainants.

"Officials are fond of finding faults with the applicants' documents. They outright return the papers instead of helping the consumers," says Anil Sood, member, State Advisory Committee, Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission (DERC). "They often accept the same bunch of papers when they come through touts."

Understandably, tempers run high in the crowds at these complaint centres; heated exchanges and frustrated outbursts are common.

Suffice to say nothing moves till you grease the machinery.

The touts demand anything between Rs 300 and 1,000 for paperwork alone. "The cut we get from the bribe is extra," Vijay said.

The discoms, of course, deny all the charges, but where does all this leave the consumer?

The latest Consumer Satisfaction Survey by DERC last year said between 40 and 70 per cent power consumers were not satisfied in their routine interaction with the discoms' staff. And about 60 per cent felt that complaints were not getting redressed within 24 hours.

It was to rid the system of these traits that private players were brought in. But something went wrong.

"Those manning the local centres are mostly the same old sarkari staff," said Sood. "So the difference between then and now is not chalk and cheese."

Hoping to change things for the better, DERC will soon release stricter guidelines, which make discoms pay compensation to consumers automatically if they fail to meet service deadlines. That is expected to help matters.

Until then, it is business as usual for Vijay the tout and his tribe.

Casestudies

They broke the seal, branded him a thief

Sunil Puri (45), Entrepreneur

For two months Sunil Puri ran around at the BSES Yamuna office, Karkardooma with a piece of paper claiming that he was a thief. He wasn't. And he proved that.

But to do so, he had to fight tooth-and-nail with senior and junior officials, field staff of the discom and even touts, all of whom suggested it was easier to plead guilty and appeal for a lower penalty.

"I was not at fault. And they knew it," Puri says.

What happened was this: One fine day, the power went off at his factory at Patparganj Industrial Estate. He thought it was a power cut. A little later, he realised it wasn't a power cut but a fault in his electrical system.

So he called the discom's technicians who, after checking the wiring at the factory, decided the fault lay in the meter.

The drama started here.

"They broke open the meter's seal and found that its circuit had burnt out," he says.

Instead of replacing the meter, the technicians began blaming Puri. "They said I should have kept my meter safe and all that. It was outrageous. As a consumer, all I was supposed to ensure was that the meter's seal was intact. And it was. Why was I being blamed?"

A week later, a letter arrived from the discom claiming that Puri had tampered with his meter and was stealing electricity—in their words Direct Extraction of Energy which could attract a prison term and a hefty penalty.

Puri went to every possible officer from the local complaint centre to the discom's head offices both at Karkardooma and Nehru Place. Many asked for money to make the case go his way or vanish altogether.

"For two months, I didn't go to my factory. Each morning I went to their office and be there the whole day to speak to anyone who cared to listen."

It took a toll on Puri's health; tension prevailed at home.

But in the end, Puri went to the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission (DERC), which, after examining the case, summarily quashed the "Show Cause" order.

"When everything was over, the discom wanted me to write a letter of satisfaction. But I demanded a written apology first," he says.

Puri is still waiting for the apology.

How long does it take to fix a cable fault?

Rama luthra (60), Advertising professional

How long do you think a power company takes to repair a simple cable fault? At GK-II, BSES Rajdhani has taken more than a year to fix a fault.

Rama Luthra, the senior citizen, who had made the complaint last June was told to wait out the monsoon. "It was monsoon, so they said the MCD wouldn't give them permission to dig," Luthra said. "The fault's in an underground cable connecting my house to the local grid."

After the monsoon, Luthra went to the BSES office to find out about her complaint. Everyone was clueless. "After much running around, someone said I would have to get them the permission from the MCD."

She went to the MCD where they told her BSES would have to pay the MCD to dig the road. This fiasco went on for a year with no results.

Meanwhile, BSES linked Luthra's house with a power cable precariously hanging between her meter and a pole across the road as a temporary solution. "Anytime the wind blows or a truck comes by, it feels the wire will snap," she said.

Now, Luthra is back to square one as the onset of another monsoon has ensured that her work is delayed till the Commonweath Games in the least.