“Kaatiyabaaz ” is a compelling documentary film that highlights the power crisis in Kanpur, a city of three million people in north India.
It has all the elements of a steamy Hindi movie: 45-degree Celsius heat, power outages that last 12-15 hours, and illegal connections that come up every night and disappear in the morning. The everyday characters are gripping too. There’s a Robin-Hood-like street electrician who “provides power” by hooking to transmission lines. An upright bureaucrat (a woman, imagine that!) trying to get people to pay their bills and prevent theft. A city full of tired, angry citizens fed up with poor service provided. The film underlines how people will do whatever it takes to get some juice in their wires so that they can get lights, fans, water…the basic necessities of 20th century life.
It’s a story that plays out in hundreds of towns and cities across India every day. Another dimension of it shown in the film is the string of politicians—from the national level to the local member of the legislature—who are only too ready to demonize the very notion of paying for electricity and who seek office on the promise of free power for all! This only reinforces the vicious circle of inadequate utility revenues limiting the amount of power that is bought and supplied. What’s more, this leads to inadequate spending on operation and maintenance of lines and equipment, and no new investments. The results are chronic breakdowns and outages occur leaving outraged consumers no longer willing to pay for service that, too often, is simply not there. The utility’s credibility collapses along with its revenues.
As we watch, mesmerized by the complexities of the situation, it becomes obvious that there are no clear-cut rights and wrongs here. The tragedy is that the power crisis in the country, and especially in the vast state Uttar Pradesh, has led to the decline of Kanpur, one of the country’s foremost industrial centers, once home to thriving textile mills.
We often think of this as an intractable technical problem, in which too many people are fighting over too little power. In fact, it is more complicated than that. The changes in behavior and outlooks needed to solve it will take time. Investment will not come to the power generation sector if the distribution end remains bankrupt because retail customers are unwilling to pay for the service. A culture of willingness to pay will come into being only when the utility is seen as a dependable provider of power.
So how does this vicious circle get cut? It seems like the first step is somehow getting the utility to supply reliable power and provide its customer base with an assurance of future performance that is credible. But that requires funds, which the utility lacks. Who will give credit to a bankrupt utility with large and mounting operational losses?
After all, while aggregate technical and commercial (euphemism for theft) losses in India are around 26%, they are an astronomical 44% in Kanpur!
At the same time, the utility in Kanpur only collects 77% of revenue billed. Across India, collection efficiency is 94%. This offers grounds for hope that Kanpur can address the problem without outside help. The challenge is daunting, but progress has been achieved in the Indian states of Gujarat, West Bengal, and Delhi, as well as in Agra which, like Kanpur is in Uttar Pradesh. All of them have managed to reduce losses, improve collections and make money. This experience suggests that power could come to Kanpur too.