About a third of India's electricity is lost each year. It just never gets billed. Some of it is stolen or disappears because of technical problems. It is enough power to light up all of Italy for a year, according to a University of Michigan study.
The problem gets especially bad during elections when electricity is used to win votes, the study adds.
The research focused on state elections in Uttar Pradesh — the country's most populous state — and found that power losses increased by three percentage points just before polls.
“Our paper offers a political explanation on electricity loss and why it persists in plain sight,” said Brian Min, assistant professor of political science. “In short, elected political leaders benefit at the polls when their constituents receive more electricity.”
The study highlights two big challenges in the world's most populous democracy: corruption and wobbly infrastructure. Both are frequently blamed for the recent slowdown in India's economy — a major issue in the ongoing general elections.
Min said the study showed incumbent candidates were more likely to be re-elected if power losses were allowed to increase.
“Political factors affect line losses in ways that technical and economic factors alone cannot explain,” said Min, who analysed data from the 2002 and 2007 elections in UP.
Min said because power companies such as the Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation Ltd were state-owned, they were beholden to the interests of elected officials.
The study said 29% of all power sent out from 1970 to 2010 in UP was unbilled. Moreover, rates of line loss in UP are higher now than in the 1970s, despite numerous policy interventions, regulatory reforms and increased efforts to prosecute power theft.
Line losses were highest in western Uttar Pradesh, home to strong political families.
In Hathras and Mainpuri districts, 50% of the power is being lost or not billed, the research found. In contrast, the lowest line loss was in Gautam Buddha Nagar at 13.6%. Gautam Buddha Nagar includes Noida, a commercial area with several multinational company offices and thousands of apartment complexes.
According to the study, the immediate need to win votes overlooks the systematic challenges that take money and time to solve.
"Politicians focus on getting their constituents electricity," Min said. "But the government has not been able to address the investments needed to build new power plants that might alleviate the power crisis."
Rural areas don't have meters and usually pay a flat rate for electricity. The study suggests that meters should be used in the countryside because that might reduce the partisan manipulation of the energy sector. Before elections, many villages are limited to 12 hours of electricity per day. But during the vote, the supply goes up to 18 hours or more without any change in revenue.
"The biggest concern of many Indians is basic day-to-day welfare," Min said. "Elections in India are about bijli, sadak paani, (electricity, roads and water)."
A couple of years ago, the issue of uninterrupted power supply to areas represented by political heavyweights in UP had landed before the Lucknow bench of Allahabad high court.