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Left in the dark: A story from a Patna locality about the digitisation fetish and smart electricity meters

The race to be the first city/state/country to be all-online, all-mechanised, all-digitally advanced often ignores one key aspect – its people

Last year, a programme was launched to replace all the traditional electric meters with “smart meters” in Patna. (Representational Photo/Express Archive)

An 87-year-old woman sits on her balcony under the November sun, her old Nokia Candybar phone by her side, reading a newspaper. A few government employees arrive at her home and hurry her down. Her son is away; she is all alone. They throw some words like “prepaid”, “smart-meter”, and “app” at her. All she takes away is that these people are threatening to take away her electricity meter and cut off her power supply.

That’s exactly what ends up happening, according to her son. She is briefly able to convince them to wait till her son is back. They come back the next day.

“They told me, this is happening. I said no, at least give me some time, some official notice period, and they said they had come with the notice and the time spent discussing it was the notice period,” her son says. The men take away the old meter. The house is left in the dark; his mother is confused, scrambling around for candles.

This incident is one of many.

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Last year, when Bihar was still governed by the JDU-BJP alliance, a programme was launched to replace all the traditional electric meters with “smart meters” in the capital, Patna. The pilot, once successful, would spill over to smaller towns. There are innumerable benefits to digitisation after all.

The new prepaid meter is much like our prepaid mobile phone plans. But not the post-Jio, post-Airtel era plans with discounts, benefits, and extra data. The old ones — when you paid, let’s say, Rs 250 for one recharge. Each minute on a call consumed one rupee. So 250 minutes’ worth of talktime.

The new system for power supply follows the same model. Pay, let’s say, Rs 1,000 for your connection. Each bulb, fan, phone consumes each rupee till there’s none left in your account. So, you need to install an app on your smartphone. Keep track of how many rupees, minutes, or watts worth of electricity you still have in the bank. As soon as it’s low enough to threaten supply disconnection, use your UPI/netbanking/ATM card to make a quick recharge. Then, relax, plug everything in, watch Netflix or the news, and sleep peacefully.

The idea is really beneficial, experts say. It cuts out the middleman, it makes payments easier, and it’s easier to track. But this fetishisation of digitisation – the race to be the first city/state/country to be all-online, all-mechanised, all-digitally advanced often ignores one key aspect – its people.

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The elderly woman mentioned earlier is my neighbour. The house, now in the dark, was built in 1945 – before India was an independent country.

“We are upstanding citizens. My grandfather was a freedom fighter. Never have we had any delayed payments; all my tenants also pay on time,” her son explains. When I tell him that most houses in the street got smart meters around 8-10 months ago, he says, “That’s the problem”.

“There was no notice. Nothing. I asked one of the guys who was taking my meter away, ‘Shouldn’t it be my choice to accept the new meter or not?’ He said he will be back with a smart meter if I want my electricity back.” In the end, he has to submit. Living without electricity in this day and age isn’t possible.

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In an attempt to digitise all homes, in the “target time”, the mess of the hurry is evident.

Adjacent to the elderly lady’s pre-independence mansion is a modern apartment complex. The society has around 45 flats, which means 45 households with electric meters. Additionally, a common-area meter for parking, lifts, and all other modern amenities.

I happen to live in one of these pigeon-holes.

On a Tuesday, the common area goes dark. Lifts stop working. Intercoms stop buzzing. The society’s secretary, also a senior citizen, sends people out to the electricity department.

“We sent you a notice on the registered mobile number. That the recharge was over. So we cut the supply,” they are told.

The question is: Whose number?

This being Bihar, strings have to be pulled. Turns out, the person who came to install the smart meter simply took one of the old bills – None of the people on the property was approached or contacted. The meter is registered to a mystery “G Ojha”, who must be equally perplexed about some apartment society’s electric supply notices. They manage to pay manually and get the electricity back for now, but the secretary says, “Don’t know about the future. Who is this Ojha? How do we track him? The people at the department won’t even let us change the contact number.”

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I know. I know because my own meter is registered to someone in Rajasthan. I’m a journalist. So, I can and do pull some strings too, and manage to track down the person. He politely tells me on call, while sitting in his home, “Beta, what can I do? I don’t even know anyone in Patna.”

In my small street, this has happened to multiple households.

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A few people tell me others are making a fuss without any reason — but they all have things in common: Well-educated, upper caste or class, and of course, holding a smartphone.

A lawyer in the Patna High Court says, “I can go visit my sister in the USA and still be able to recharge the meter here on my phone. People just don’t want to accept change.”

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My domestic worker, who cannot even spell or read, begs to differ. Earlier, she would use electricity, go to the office, and pay the bill in cash. She doesn’t have a smartphone or UPI. Neither does my mother. Rather technologically challenged, she calls me in a frenzy because the house is suddenly dark while everyone else has light. The electrical department gives the same response it has to others mentioned, so we have to send an automated call – to whom, though? That, they couldn’t care less about. They have digitised the house. That’s all that matters.

There has been no explanation of the transition process to senior citizens, less educated, or otherwise marginalised in this new world of technology and digitisation.

A clear class, caste, and education divide is visible.

Personally, I am glad that this happened after my father’s passing. When the electricity goes out, the apartment complex turns on the backup. They don’t do so for a single apartment, if their power is cut due to failure of payment, obviously.

I get petrified imagining a 4-5 hour power cut, with his oxygen machine and other ancillaries keeping him alive, turned off, while we struggle to argue with the electricity board to give us the electricity back manually.

anwiti.singh@expressindia.com

First published on: 02-12-2022 at 11:59 IST
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