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Stealing power is getting tougher

January 25, 2008

In mid-2007 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised that the government would “tackle the electricity theft and distribution losses on a war-footing”. Have the states got their act together…?


While trying to find examples of successful drives against power theft in 2007 I came across many examples. Take these two in Maharashtra. In a crackdown against power thefts in October last year, the Maharashtra state electricity distribution company ltd (MSEDCL) has exposed 45 cases of power thefts involving a sum of over Rs 40 lakh in Pune.

Some big fish have been caught as well. Mahavitaran, the Maharashtra government-owned power distribution company, discovered power theft amounting to Rs 41.29 lakh at the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group’s headquarters at the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City (DAKC).

In Haryana, The Dakshin Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam (DHBVN) has been on an over-drive to catch electricity thieves. They have devised a theft informer scheme and doubled the the prize money under the scheme. And it’s high. From Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000 (maximum) and from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 (minimum). And latest reports show that this scheme is working well.

In Delhi, the power distribution company BSES has installed distribution transformer metering (DT Metering) to gauge the level of energy supplied and billed so as to find out the quantum of power theft in the area…this was a Rs 15 crore project.

Cash rewards make sense as detection is difficult. In fact, so is persecution, as influential politicians, power company officials and workers often conspire with the thieves (which are often commercial establishments.) And at times people who have got used to stealing power get violent if they are stopped as this case in Delhi! Overall though I think people are getting used to the idea that free power is not their birthright! According to BBC, India loses about 42% of the power supplied to Delhi, which is India’s capital city and for the rest of the country the ‘estimate is that somewhere between a third and half of the electricity supply is unpaid for’ and there is no reason to believe that substantial progress has been made as yet. And the reason is that the laws to contain electricity theft were made only in this decade in India.

Until 2003 stealing power was no big deal!
Difficult to believe, but not very long ago stealing electricity was not a criminal offence! The 2003 Electricity Act changed all of that. The Act states that those who tamper with power lines and meters

…shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine or with both.

It doesn’t seem much, and perhaps that is why in 2006, the government went a step further, and Power Theft became a non-bailable and cognisable offence. The 2003 Electricity Act was amended to incorporate this. A knee-jerk reaction for sure, but welcome!

Can you believe it, earlier power thieves got away with a scolding!
Power companies have not been serious about punishing electricity thieves in the past. Offenders have usually been reprimanded and if they fell into the category of repeat offenders – their power supply was cut off. Thats all!

What’s it like in the rest of the world?
Nowhere is power theft taken as seriously as say a bank robbery…but it is a criminal offence to steal electricity in developed countries like the UK and the USA. I could not find authentic web resources for prison terms in these countries (readers are welcome to add to this information) but I did get an authentic web source for Ireland. Here, if electricity meters are tampered with or if electricity is stolen, this is what happens:

…on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding £1,500 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both,
(ii) on conviction on indictment, to a fine not exceeding £20,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or to both.

5 years is good but the advantage that these countries have is the stringent policing and law enforcement methods and probably that is why their electricity losses are miniscule as compared to India’s. China has also contained electricity theft. According to the BBC:

In China, Asia’s other emerging economic giant, no more than 3% of the nation’s power supply is lost to theft.

In some countries legislation is even weaker than India’s. South Africa is one of them. Action against a first-time offender is as follows:

…the meter/network should be repaired at cost to the customer and he should be given a written warning.

There is a re-connection fee of R1,500 (US$230). Second time offenders also have an easy time, although the reconnection fee is higher – R2,000 (US$300). It is only the third time that the thief is brought to book!

Where the meter or network is found to have been tampered with for a third time, in addition to the removal of the meter and disconnection of the customer, a criminal charge is laid with the police against the customer in terms of the Electricity Act.

Even for third time offenders, re-connection is allowed by paying the same R2000 fine. It’s not surprising that where power theft is concerned, South Africa has a big problem on it’s hands. Issues concerning detection and persecution are also common, like in India.

Hope for the future
In India we can now hope that with laws in place, and the government going all out to fix the problem, the situation will improve. Increasing the penalty to five years will be better though. If five years is the norm in parts of the world where power theft is not such a huge issue, we should have it here too.

(Photograph is by me)

(This is a re-written and updated version of an earlier post of mine written in December 2006, just a month or so after I started blogging. I have now deleted that old post.)

Related Reading: Find out how much electricity your household gadgets consume.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. ulag permalink
    January 25, 2008 11:04 am

    This is a good development. As iv said before i think we have all the necessary resources. If we can prevent their wastage itll go a long way in fulfilling all our requirements. Same goes for the lack of funds due to corruption and inefficient planning.

  2. January 25, 2008 12:49 pm

    The greatest cause of stolen hydro-electric power in my province is the illegal growing of marijuana in suburbs, small towns and outlying areas. They are commonly called “grow-ops” and power suppliers lose money in the millions of dollars to these illegal “businesses”. There is much co-operation between power suppliers and local law enforcements; there is even an anonymous whistle blowing opportunity for ordinary citizens to report grow-ops – it is called CrimeStoppers. This has been proven to be effective in stopping these illegal businesses. There is also some effort for police agencies to charge landlords who rent houses, which are converted into grow-ops, in order to recoup some of the financial losses due to tampering with electrical infra-structure, cost of policing and court involvement. G

  3. January 25, 2008 2:04 pm

    Thanks Ulag! I think India has woken up. Better late than never!

    Suburbanlife, the whistle blowing opportunities with adequate rewards is a great idea and I think it should be implemented throughout India. I wonder if you know the punishment for those who are caught stealing electricity in Canada?

  4. krenim permalink
    January 25, 2008 3:19 pm

    Well in the west we have regulatory bodies everyone listens too ,frankly it is a non issue in the UK.

    Anyway I have a chum who’s in India flogging high voltage transformers to the power companies there the idea is that if some poor fellow in the slum tries to swing cables over them he’s toast or if he’s fortunate enough not to get electrocuted pretty much nothing will run with that kind of voltage.

    Ofcourse why bother with overhead wires in cities ?Much neater to have the whole distribution network 10 feet underground no ugly wires,no more accidental electrocution,no monkeying around basically..We did that 20-30 years ago.

  5. January 25, 2008 5:28 pm

    Krenim, that’s an important point you raised. Actually we have already started doing this. It’s already been done in major cities but unfortunately certain parts (particularly old parts of cities) it’s not been done. That picture you see in in old city hyderabad but the over ground cables are not something you see all over hyderabad. Ofcourse not all cities have been modernized, but it’s happening, slowly. however even then the electricity thieves manage to steal power. There tap meters for example.

  6. January 25, 2008 8:29 pm

    well every one wants power…!and between this we have to do something to save the environment…what a nation!

  7. January 25, 2008 10:17 pm

    Nita – i refer you to a study made by a local University as to the problems associated with legal recourse toward marijuana Grow-Op criminals. A pretty unsatisfactory legal response! G

  8. January 26, 2008 7:27 pm

    Ordinarily a common citizen cannot do power theft without technical know-how. It is always the staff of an electricity company who “assist” in the theft.

    In fact, special criminal prosecution were overdue long ago. But power theft had been treated as ordinary theft and FIR was to be filed with nearest police station. Amusingly case of power theft was was very difficult to prove because police did not know how to investigate a power theft.

    The new enactment will not help much , since the mind sets of the politician and bureaucrats, the executors and enforcers , are same.

  9. January 27, 2008 8:59 am

    Suburban, that link you sent is not working.
    JV, thanks. I agree that we have a long way to go before this power theft problem is solved. However the enactment is a step forward, even if it is a baby step!

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