As summer advances, clashes erupt over water, power across India
In the country’s villages as well as urban pockets, disputes over electricity and water trigger clashes which are likely to increase as the summer advances.
The staff at Dhoom Manikpur’s electricity substation are accustomed to what they call “hot talk”. Who can blame people for losing their temper when faced with a power cut at the height of the north Indian summer, reasons Neeraj Sharma, a junior engineer at this remote outpost of Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (UPPCL). He won’t say in female presence how hot the talk can get, but it’s safe to presume that family members are invoked.
“In summer months, when the load (on the substation) becomes uncontrollable and interruptions are frequent, it’s common for people from the villages around here to walk in and threaten our employees,” Sharma said.
The substation supplies electricity to households and industries across a 21-kilometre radius of this region bordering Delhi.
On 20 April, things went beyond hot talk. “At 4.30pm, the power operator on duty here, Satveer Singh, an ex-army man who believed in following the rules, cut off power supply to the rural areas as a safety measure because a storm was on its way. He immediately received a call from one Neetu Gujjar from Badhpura village demanding that power be restored. Singh was used to explaining things patiently to the public so that’s what he did on that day as well,” said Sharma.
The day’s temperature was running high and so were tempers. At 4.50pm, Gujjar charged into Singh’s office, brandishing a gun. “Neetu said ‘put on the power’. My uncle said he will do that after the storm passes over,’’ Sunil Tomar later wrote in his complaint at Badalpur’s police station. “Neetu started abusing him, my uncle protested, and in response Neetu opened fire at him. Uncle fell down. Uncle’s colleagues and I tried to restrain Neetu but he fired his way out of the gates,” the nephew added. At 5.20pm, Satveer Singh died on his way to a hospital in Ghaziabad.
In Wazirpur, too, trouble began with “an exchange of swear words”. Three lakh people live in this cluster of three slums on Delhi’s north west periphery and “most crimes emerge from overcrowding,” said Abhishek Bajpai, the local police Station House Officer. Most fights in these slums break out over water.
“We hardly get any from the taps. No one knows when the water will come. When it does trickle out of the taps once in a while, it resembles acid: dark and pungent,” said Sumit Aggarwal, owner of the slum’s only grocery store. The only source of water here is a tanker sent by the Delhi Jal Board at 4pm every day. “The tanker carries a thousand litres of water. Nearly 250 people fight over it every day in this part of the slum complex.Half go away without a drop,” Aggarwal said.
The DJB tanker has six outlets for water and the right to plug pipes into those holes rests with those who own pipes and know how to wield the privilege. “First they will fill their own containers and then allow a set of people to line up after them,” explained Aggarwal, proud owner of a thick plastic pipe that he isn’t shy to show off. On most days, Aggarwal is perched in the middle of the melee to maintain order.
On March 18, things went out of his control. Two young men from the slum, both of them carrying their pipes, faced off over the right to draw water from the tanker. “One overpowered the other with help from other members of his family. The sister of the teenager who was getting thrashed went up to her house and alerted her father,” said Aggarwal.
Lal Bahadur, 60, a scrap dealer on a rare day’s leave from work that day, rushed down to the street to save his son. His older son too joined the battle shortly. It was too late, however. “My brother was injured but it was my father who suffered the worst blows. He had fallen on the ground and this entire family was upon him, beating him with their hands, their legs and their pipe,” said Rohit, the older son. He and his brother managed to pull his father out and carry him to the nearest hospital, but Lal Bahadur was declared “brought dead.” Twenty days after the man died in the capital’s first reported death over a water dispute, his younger son, who was about to begin his training as a bus conductor, quietly succumbed to his injuries.
More bodies may pile up as the summer advances. On May 11, two people were killed, 60 injured and 3,000 arrested in Aurangabad in communal riots triggered by the crackdown by the municipal corporation on illegal water connections. What’s true of Wazirpur may well apply to India on a broader scale: too many people and a limited supply of the basic human necessities. A study by the Water Resources Institute reveals that 14 of India’s 20 largest thermal utilities shut down at least once due to water shortages between 2013 and 2016, costing the companies $1.4 billion.
In late April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India had become 100% electrified — a village is technically electrified if 10% of its households have power connections — but according to his government’s own data, 31 million households in India remain without electricity. In a country where conflicts need no more cause, poor and unequal access to water and electricity add a violent edge to everyday life through the endless months of summer. Battles are fought at several levels.
States wrestle with each other over kilowatts and cusecs of electricity and water. The conflict between Delhi and Haryana over Yamuna’s water spilled out of courtrooms in February 2016, killing 30 people and injuring over 200, when members of Haryana’s Jat community cut off the movement of water to force the central government in Delhi to cede their demand for job quotas.
In September 2016, riots broke out in Karnataka after the Supreme Court ordered the state to release 15,000 cusecs of water from its reservoirs to Tamil Nadu to help farmers overcome a drought. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have been locked in a fight over electricity sharing since the latter state was carved out of the former in 2014.
After three years of legal wrangles over the terms of sale and purchase, Andhra Pradesh stopped its supply of electricity to Telangana over unpaid dues of ₹4,440 crore in June 2017. The next day, Telangana snapped the flow from the opposite side claiming a pending bill of Rs1,676. 46 crore.
Things get uglier between distribution companies and individual consumers over unpaid bills or active theft of electricity.
A large number of consumers see nothing wrong in stealing electricity or refusing to pay bills. Some simply can’t access or afford a legitimate connection; others expect governments to provide electricity free of cost. “We are talking dues of ₹1 lakh or 2 lakh; it leads people to extreme steps. It’s common to see young people in these villages carrying expensive guns,” said Neeraj Sharma of UPPCL who recently came out of his office to find his car vandalised. His substation files a hundred first information reports (FIRs) at the local police station every month.
The Noida Power Corporation Limited (NPCL), a private company that supplies electricity to 118 villages around Greater Noida near Delhi, divides them into “soft” and “hard,” based on their relative population of migrants and locals. Visits to “soft” villages can be accomplished with assistance from the company’s own bouncers, but a police contingent must accompany them on inspection trips to “hard” villages.
Visitors stream in and out of Subodh Kumar Tyagi’s office in Greater Noida all day; only some of them are polite. The general manager at NPCL identifies one as a “shooter” from a village gang who wants him to take back an FIR against a defaulter and another as a political hopeful who wants pending dues pardoned for a string of people who have followed him to his office. These visits usually follow inspections by NPCL’s officers who have booked 15,000 cases of electricity theft over the past three years. Five of the company’s employees were beaten up last August while they were inspecting homes for electricity theft in Tughlakpur village in Greater Noida. Three ended up in a hospital.
On May 18 , an NPCL team visited a “medium” village in Greater Noida. Members of the team (junior engineer, assistant, lineman, videographer, bouncers, police constables) know what they are going to find before they get out of their cars and walk down the slip road. Stringy black cables crisscross the village, stealing power from the company’s electricity poles. Most of the company’s meters are either defunct beca- use of long-pending dues or missing, and most consumers express dismay at being told that electricity doesn’t come free. The team also knows how quickly such disappointment turns into anger. Five minutes is all they spend dealing with one household: the team leader confronts the head of the family, his assistant writes out a notice, the line man climbs up the nearest pole and scissors the unauthorised cable, and the videographer captures it all.
In Delhi, the list of problematic pockets grows longer every year. “These include Najafgarh, Jaffarpur, Mundka, Badarpur, Yamuna Vihar, Daryaganj, Dallupura etc. In these areas, AT & C (aggregate technical and commercial) losses still range between 25% and 50%,” said a BSES spokesperson who didn’t want to be named. BSES, Delhi’s biggest power distribution company, estimates an annual loss of over “ ₹600 crore to discoms and consumers from power theft”. Most localities in his list lie on Delhi’s fringes where poverty and crime shadow each other. Few inspection raids to these parts of the capital are uneventful; many end up in mob attacks. An engineer lost his life in one last year.
This year has been no different. On February 28, a 20-member BSES team was attacked by a mob in Kamruddin Nagar, “a high-theft area”, in outer Delhi and a supervisor took a serious blow to his head. “The area is full of illegal factories making plastic goods that run on stolen electricity 24/7. Verbal threats and stone pelting are common when you visit the site,” said the injured supervisor. “On this day, 20 people, their faces covered, surrounded us the moment Delhi Police officers accompanying us left us to eat lunch. We were hit by iron rods. My head started to bleed; it took six stitches at the hospital.”
If the companies think their consumers’ behaviour to be extreme, the consumers feel the companies are being unfair.
Sixty-year-old daily-wage worker Mumtaz , a resident of Leprosy Colony in east Delhi’ Shahdara, does not regret being a part of the mob that thrashed the BSES team that raided her colony in the first week of April. “I’ll do that again if they dare step foot in that place again!”she said. Her daughter, Tarannum, who lives in the same colony, was sent a summon by an electricity-special court in Karkarduma the following week. Mumtaz is currently defending her against BSES’s charges of electricity theft.
“Accused Tarannum was dishonestly extracting the electrical energy of the complainant through the main line. The accused had connected two core black colour aluminium cables to the Pole no NV. The illegal wire was going through the bathroom which was found locked,” reads the company’s complaint. It also notes that “there was no electricity generating device found at site”.
If that were true, Mumtaz arg- ues, taking out a sheaf of papers from a folder, then what does the court make of the multiple rece- ipts of bills the BSES has charged her daughter over the years acco- rding to the readings of its own meter? She was asked to send her daughter to the next hearing. Mumtaz doesn’t know if that would be possible. Her daughter is a hospital watching over her son, who was recently paralysed after he accidentally grabbed one of the multiple naked electrical cables running through the colony. Court hearings are the last things the family needs at this time, she says. “First, this government makes your life hell and then the electricity people.”
As a lawyer defending consumers in disputes over electricity, Navneet Singh spends a lot of time at this court. It’s hard work, he says, but not harder than facing hostile consumers as a representative of an electricity distribution company, which is what he did for a living before switching sides.
Singh wins only one out of every nine cases he fights and views most as exercises in futility. He offers his latest case as an example. At its centre is an electrical meter that belongs to a Delhi businessman accused by BSES of tampering with the device to minimise his monthly bill. The accused claims he couldn’t have fiddled with the meter while keeping its hologrammed seal intact. The lawyer representing BSES brings up the insertion of an external wire into the meter as seen in the video shot by the inspection team.
The accused claims the wire was inserted by a repairman from BSES who had come over to fix a minor issue with the meter two weeks before the inspection team appeared at his door. After hours of deliberations over the mechanics of the meter, the court asked the two parties to end the two-year-old case with a compromise. And a compromise was duly struck after the defendant paid the complainant ~30,000 to settle an outstanding bill of ₹3 lakh.
Meanwhile, in other parts of India, the bijli-paani wars are picking up pace.
On May 3, two neighbouring families in a village near Indore attacked each other with canes over the order of drawing water from the only functioning hand pump available in the area. The following week, four Dalit children were thrashed by an upper-caste man in a village in Ujjain because they had dared to ask him for drinking water after finding the hand pump in their locality dry. On 28 May, denied drinking water for the seventh consecutive day, the residents of Shimla chased water tankers through the streets. Some of them threatened to lock the gates of the municipal corporation. And so it goes.
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