The Madhya Pradesh government has announced waiver of outstanding electricity bills for workers and economically deprived sections. The Rs5,200-crore scheme includes a no-questions-asked amnesty for electricity thieves those facing prosecution for theft, or those whose power supply was disconnected for stealing. A benevolent government will withdraw all court cases against them and waive their outstanding charges, fines, interests and so forth. Even habitual and serial offenders those who had availed of similar amnesty in the past can apply for the bill waiver scheme, says a government order.
Under the Electricity Act, those facing prosecution for power theft were looking at imprisonment of up to three years and/or a fine of up to Rs10,000. But now, the law-breakers can not only avail of the generous waiver offer, but also get power supply at a flat, subsidised rate of Rs200 per month. The cost of subsidy will be paid by the state exchequer and state-run power companies. About 28 lakh people have applied for the bill-waiver and case-withdrawal scheme almost one-third of the total registered consumers in the state.
MP is among the top states where power theft is rampant. In 2016-’17, every three minutes, one person was caught stealing power here. The electricity distribution companies lost power worth Rs4,900 crore. The transmission and distribution (T&D) losses of power companies increased to 28% against the national average of 21% last year.
Power theft is not the only area where the MP government is soft on law-breakers. It also plans amnesty for people from the weaker sections facing prosecution for minor crimes. It will withdraw criminal cases pending in court. The government has already legalised illegal colonies. With elections round the corner, the Congress cannot oppose such a decision due to political compulsions. If it speaks against the largesse, the BJP will lose no time in pronouncing it “anti-poor”. The Opposition party has lodged a complaint with the Election Commission. But the complaint is not about the amnesty, but about the chief minister’s photo on certificates of bill-waiver!
No one would, or should, grudge any step taken by the government for helping the poor. That is the foundation of a welfare state whose goal is to create equal opportunities for all citizens. There has been a slew of announcements for the poor over the past few weeks. No one opposed such decisions as giving power to the poor at a subsidised rate of Rs200 per month. The Madhya Pradesh government is already giving a subsidy of Rs5,100 crore per year for power supply to farmers at a flat rate and another Rs3,100 crore for free electricity to farmers belonging to the SCs/STs.
But a line must be drawn. And that line is, obviously, blatantly illegal actions. Withdrawal of criminal cases against power thieves makes law-abiding citizens look like fools. What about those poor people who pay their bills regularly? Would they not feel cheated? Would the decision not impel others to steal? The MP government’s decision is a serious setback to reforms in the power sector that started in 2001. The state is already at the bottom of the reforms pyramid, thanks to its tolerance of theft. In fact, this year, the state’s performance in the power sector reforms has slipped down by almost 10% in the ratings given by the Government of India. Two of its power companies slipped from ‘B’ to ‘C+’ and one got ‘B+’. It is the people of the state who pay the price for the government’s inefficiency and doles. Madhya Pradesh is among those states where power is the costliest for ordinary consumers. One can be certain that there will be a massive hike in power tariff after the elections.
Gujarat got an ‘A+’ for excellent performance in the power sector this year. It has occupied the top slots ever since the rating exercise was started six years ago. Narendra Modi, during his stint as chief minister of Gujarat, turned around the loss-making power sector within a short span of three years without increasing tariffs.
How was that possible? When he came to power in Gujarat in 2001, electricity theft was rampant a staggering 70% in the rural areas. Just before the 2007 Assembly polls, the Modi government took action against 300,000 people for power theft, setting up five police stations to deal with power theft, registering FIRs against 100,000 farmers and arresting thousands. The Congress made it a poll issue, plastering the state with posters of farmers in handcuffs. Yet, the BJP stormed back to power with a two-thirds majority in 2007. Should the Chouhan government not learn from Gujarat’s example?
(The writer is a senior journalist)