Delhi Assembly elections 2020: Can subsidy power a ride to Delhi’s throne?
From the pre-2002 days (before power distribution was privatised) when there were frequent power cuts in Delhi to the current 24X7 supply scenario, electricity supply and bills have always been an election issue in Delhi. In 2013, when the Aam Aadmi Party emerged on Delhi’s political horizon, one of the most enduring images was that of Arvind Kejriwal climbing a ladder to connect power supply of those who had participated in his party’s ‘power satyagraha’ against the then Sheila Dikshit government.
On AAP’s call, hundreds, mostly in working class neighbourhoods, had refused to pay power bills, alleging they were inflated to help power discoms. Cracking down, the companies had disconnected the supply to their houses. Power has topped the election agenda in Delhi ever since.
Riding on the promise of ‘bijli half, paani maaf’, AAP stormed to power in 2015, winning 67 of the 70 seats.
In 2020, the AAP has upped its game. Six months ago, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced free electricity to those consuming either up to 200 units or getting a bill of up to Rs 800 a month. For those consuming between 201-400 units, the government announced a discount of up to Rs 800 on every domestic connection bill. In the last four and a half years of AAP government, an average 4.2 million households have benefited from the power subsidy scheme. This means nearly 80% of the total 5.2 million domestic consumers in Delhi had availed the 50% subsidy.
This has forced the AAP rivals -- the BJP and the Congress, who had been criticising the power and water subsidies as freebies being doled out by the Delhi government, to announce the extension of these benefits, if they are voted to power.
“The revised subsidy costs the Delhi government Rs 2,250 crore a year. But, it has increased the coverage of beneficiaries from about 80% of the total domestic consumers to 90%. In the month of December (when air-conditioners are switched off), it even touched about 95%,” said Satyendar Jain, Delhi’s power minister.
Political experts say seeing the number of families benefiting from the scheme, it will be a “big risk” for other political parties to talk of discontinuing such a scheme.
“The AAP has set a precedent with such a populist move and no party can risk not offering the same if voted to power. Perhaps that is why we can even see a gradual shift in the poll narrative set by the BJP and the Congress. From being dismissive about such polices by calling it ‘freebies’, they are now talking about offering more than what Kejriwal is giving,” said Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
Unlike the AAP, the BJP has been speaking in different voices on power subsidy. While Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari had said that the party will give “five times more benefits” than what the AAP government is promising, Union minister Prakash Javadekar, in-charge of Delhi elections, was quick to dismiss it.
The party’s national general secretary Anil Jain had targeted the AAP for freebies and said that the party will soon launch a campaign -- Dilli ka Swabhiman. The party had planned to go with the line ‘Dilli bikau nahi hai’ (Delhiites are not for sale). Other senior leaders and Delhi MPs such as Parvesh Verma have suggested that a token amount of Re 1 be levied on those getting power and water free so that the self respect of consumers is not hurt.
While the BJP is yet to clear its stand on power subsidy, the party in its 2013 assembly election manifesto had promised 30% reduction in power tariff.
The Congress, on the other hand, has announced it will increase the cap on the consumption-based subsidy from the existing 400 units to 600 units.
NOT JUST FOR THE POOR
The revised power subsidy scheme has enabled the AAP government to benefit a wider section of the consumers, which now also include affluent colonies.
In upscale colonies such Greater Kailash-I, Panchsheel Enclave, Vasant Kunj and Jangpura one can find many families, mostly those having a maximum of three members, who have either received a bill of Rs 0 or discounts of up to Rs 800.
Rama Gupta, 66, a resident of S-Block, GK-I, rushed to her bedroom to get her mobile phone when asked about the power bill of her house. “See the net payable amount here. It reads Rs 0.35. The units used were 178. This is my bill of November, 2019. For December also, our bill was similar. This has never happened before,” she said showing the bills on her phone.
Gupta and her husband have been living in the neighbourhood for more than five decades now. In November 2018, she said her bill was Rs 1,300 for nearly the same units used.
“I feel even well-to-do families deserve such subsidies because we all pay so much in taxes,” she said.
But, her brother-in-law who lives with his wife a floor above disagreed and demanded that the Delhi government launch a scheme where the subsidised amount can be surrendered back.
“A scheme similar to the Central government’s LPG surrender scheme should be introduced. We are willing to pay our full bill. The subsidy should go to those for whom saving of even ₹500 matters ,” said MK Gupta resident of S-block who got a subsidy of over ₹700 last month.
Further South, Bimla, 61, a resident of Ambedkar Camp slum in Ambedkar Nagar whose daughter works as a domestic help in the area, said the savings from their power bills have helped them get more aata (wheat flour) and also some onions this time.
“Atta 2 kilo, aur thoda pyaaz le aaye,” she said.
PROBLEM FOR TENANTS
On September 25 last year, Kejriwal announced the ‘Mukhyamantri Kirayedaar Bijli Meter Yojna’ that allowed tenants to avail of the government’s power bill waivers and subsidies by applying for prepaid meters.
But even after four months since the scheme was introduced, only 240 households living on rent have availed it, data from the three major power distribution companies (BRPL, BYPL and TPDDL) in Delhi stated.
Deepak Rastogi, 32, a resident of Patparganj, said he had applied for the prepaid meter under the scheme but the process did not come through for inadequate documentation. “I provided an ID proof of my old address. To avail the scheme they need an ID of the new address,” he said.
Under the scheme, instead of providing an NOC from the house owner, the tenants are required to produce an identification document having that address and a rent agreement or receipt.
Like Rastogi, several other residents said providing an ID proof having the same address (where the prepaid meter is to be installed) is turning out to be a problem.
Earlier, there was a provision for tenants to get separate meters and avail the subsidy schemes. But, that would require acquiring a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) from the landlord, which was often denied for fear of alleged encroachment of the properties.
LOWER FIXED CHARGES
Pramod Deo, former chairperson of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) and expert on the matter, explained how even households having higher consumption are now getting discounted bills.
“All households are getting reduced power bills also because the fixed charges for those consuming up to 1,200 units were reduced by the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission in July last year,” he said.
Deo, however, said continuing subsidies for long could negatively impact the regulatory assets of the discoms. Regulatory asset is the gap between the expenses shown by the discoms and the revenue from consumers through electricity bills. “The subsidy money is being paid to them (discoms) upfront by the government. But, the regulatory assets for Delhi discoms are still pegged at over ₹8,000 crore. So, it has to be seen how long such subsidies can last,” he said.