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Friday, October 30, 2020

An experiment with power

Prepaid electricity in Manipur reduces power theft; improves supply.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: August 18, 2016 12:07:19 am
Haryana electricity department, electricity department strike, Haryana power employees, Jhajjar, Joint action committee, India news Photo for representational purpose

On a visit to Manipur, I asked several people which aspect of their lives had changed the most from the perspective of governance and/or delivery of public goods and services. This wasn’t meant to be a systematic sample survey and was more of a dipstick indicator. Manipur has a population of 2.86 million and nearly 30 per cent of it is urban. The people I spoke to were from Imphal, so there is a bit of a bias in the sample. The Imphal agglomeration, not just the municipal area, has a population around 5,50,000. This gives you some idea of the possible sample bias.

Electricity distribution found the top mention in the people’s responses. Electricity supply has three aspects: Generation, transmission and distribution. Generation will be a major issue in Manipur, especially in times other than the rainy season. Much of the power will have to come from outside the state — Arunachal Pradesh (Lower Subansiri), Assam (Bongaigaon) and Tripura (Palatana) — even if hydroelectricity generation from the Loktak project increases.

The responses of the people I spoke to had to do with distribution, not generation. They talked of prepaid electricity. Manipur is not the only state to experiment with such an idea. Haryana was the first state to introduce prepaid electricity. Lucknow, in UP, has prepaid electricity vouchers. These vouchers require a prepaid electricity meter, so that consumers can be alerted when a recharge is necessary. Such meters make life easier. In addition, the Lucknow electricity supply authority offered a tariff rebate to encourage the switch. Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh has a similar scheme, though there has been resistance in the state with consumers complaining that their monthly bills have increased. Their complaint is understandable. After all, the purpose of prepaid meters and prepaid vouchers isn’t only to make life easier. They also intend to reduce aggregate technical and commercial losses (ATC), a part of which is euphemism for theft.

In Manipur, the idea of prepaid electricity was targeted at illegal power connections. Seen this way, the resistance to meters in Itanagar does not seem odd. That there were no reports of resistance in Imphal appears strange.

Some towns and some types of domestic consumers in Madhya Pradesh will also have prepaid connections once the MP Electricity Regulatory Commission approves the scheme. Chandigarh is also slated to have a similar scheme, so are Pune and Mumbai. Telangana plans prepaid meters for government offices.

To get back to Manipur, the Manipur State Power Distribution Company Limited has plans to provide meters to all consumers. People unfamiliar with Manipur may not realise that the state has two distinct geographical regions: The valley— where 60 per cent of the state’s population lives — and the hilly areas. Access to public goods and services is much more difficult in the hilly regions, terrain being a major constraint. There will be 1,00,000 electronic meters outside the valley, but except for district headquarters and towns in the hills, these will not be be prepaid.

The experiment with prepaid meters has begun in four districts: Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal and Bishnupur. The government did not embark on the project in all the four districts at one go. Prepaid meters were first installed in central parts of Imphal because the government wanted to gauge if the experiment would work.

People have been jailed for stealing electricity and tampering with meters. The power situation has improved. Collections from payments of electricity bills have increased. At the same time, demand for electricity has reduced by 50 per cent and tripping incidents have become rarer. The number of consumers has also gone up. One should reiterate that this is an increase in the number of legal consumers. There is better planning — on the supply side — and there is no need for VIP lines (those guaranteed uninterrupted power supply regardless of what was happening in the rest of Manipur).

My respondents — not just people who work for the government — told me all this with a sense of pride. If consumers know exactly how much electricity they are consuming (there are instant alerts) and how much that costs (not quite the same with post-paid bills), they are more judicious in using electricity.

Although the connection is somewhat distant, the prepaid metering experiment reminded me of an anecdote in Prafulla Chandra Ray’s (1861-1944) autobiography — it has not been translated into English. It was published in 1937. Ray studied BSc (physics, chemistry, biology) at Edinburgh University. At that time, Edinburgh University didn’t have a system of tuition fees. If a student liked the lecture, he/she left some money for the lecturer while leaving the lecture hall. I wonder if we will ever have prepaid vouchers for higher education, specific to the lecturer.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal

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