A threadbare discussion on issues and management of power supply in Manipur was held recently in Manipur Press Club for two days, on June 9 and 10 which was jointly organised by the Senior Citizens for Society, Manipur and All Manipur Working Journalists' Union under the sponsorship of the Joint Electricity Regulatory Commission for Manipur and Mizoram (JERCMM) and Electricity Department, Government of Manipur. The whole proceedings of the workshop was telecast live in local news channel. The exercise was a complete one in the sense that almost all the stakeholders––power consumers’ associations, senior citizens, journalists, officials of Electricity Department including the Chief Engineer and human right activists were present, but the outcome is rather disappointing. It is not sure what recommendations were adopted at the end of the two-day workshop or if any recommendations were adopted after all. Not long after the workshop was concluded, the Power Department came up with an electrifying idea of re-launching power disconnection drive all over the valley districts, this time more intensively with the extra whip of registering criminal cases against unauthorised consumers and defaulters.
What is rather mystifying is that all the suggestions, ideas, inputs and problems shared during the two-day workshop seemed to have been thrown down the gutter. It appears Electricity Department or for that matter the Government of Manipur cannot think beyond harassment of consumers. Like in the said workshop, it was pointed out again and again to the Government that the power crisis gripping Manipur for the past many decades is a systematic failure and that the department as well as the Government are no less guilty than the power consumers, both authorised and unauthorised.
It was only last year that the Power Department woke up to the crippling power crisis when three sons of the soil filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the State Government in connection with erratic power supply. As a response or rather as a reaction to the PIL, electricity department initiated a rigorous drive against the defaulters and unauthorised (illegal) power consumers under the Manipur Electricity Regulation Act 2003. The drive resulted in the disconnection of many defaulters and put some of the unauthorised consumers behind the bar (as reported in newspapers). Then it ended without achieving anything substantial except for harassment and victimization of some poor consumers.
Now again, not long after the highly educative two-day workshop at Manipur Press Club, Electricity Department has re-launched the same drive, this time with the more mortifying weapon of registering criminal cases against power consumers. It is now clear the Electricity Department learnt nothing from the workshop. What a waste of time and public money ? The officials participating in the workshop stated that there are around two lakh unauthorised power consumers in Manipur. Then the pertinent question is, will the State Government register criminal cases against all of them and put them behind bars. If the department and the Government is committed to penalise all the defaulters without partiality and uniformly, then the current drive demands 20 huge jails which can accommodate 10,000 people each.
The ongoing drive of the electricity department to fish out the defaulters and illegal consumers with the help of state police, though appears justified and legitimate to some but to many it sounds like thunderbolt coming out of nowhere and the very act is unjustified and untimely. The action is too harsh because most of the consumers have to sell their belongings (property) to clear the dues in order to get the light. Another point is that most of the defaulters and unauthorised consumers belong to the poorer section that may not be in a position to clear the dues. Many are AAY and BPL card holders who are getting PDS items because of their poor economic condition. The crux point is, would they be able to clear their dues at one go. Definitely not, then what is the solution? One of the interesting points is the calculation of dues based on compound interest. This remind us of old feudal era where big landlords exploited and appropriated labour and property of the peasants and farmers. In fact compound interest is a kind of theft committed in broad day light by using arithmetic. This system must have no room within a democracy. One crucial point which we seem to have forgotten is to analyse the reason why around eighty per cent of the consumers fail to give electric bill.
Are this 80 per cent of the power consumers the so-called irresponsible citizens who are defying a responsible Government ? Here we would like to say that ‘responsible Government sounds like something alien in this buffer State of Manipur. We would come back to that topic in another issue. Talking about the ongoing disconnection drive, it has inadvertently reconfigured the rich and the poor into a new division between the responsible, ideal and model citizenship on one hand, and the irresponsible, condemnable and uncivilised, on the other. In this new distribution of the norms of model citizenship, it is the poorer section of the society who bears the brunt of the assault and remains “merely” the irresponsible citizen. One also needs to understand how the “irresponsible, condemnable and uncivilised” cannot be made civilised within the regime of thought that the current scheme of improvement carries. Seen from the moral high ground of the liberal moralists, there is a serious lack of capacity, albeit, failure on the part of those who do not pick up the electric bills and “illegally” tap electricity in order to become a responsible citizenship. And this is why, as they would grumble, there is a general attitude of apathy. For example, one runs something like, “sarkargee oiradi keisu kaide” (if it is a Government property, it does not matter). Here, we must understand that such attitude was not imbibed out of nowhere. It took a long process. It was bred, cultured and nurtured within the socio-political system of the State with active involvement of the State itself. Then should the blame go only to power consumers?
Such an attitude is, as they (sic. liberal moralists) argue, a regressive attitude, a sign of immaturity that is born out of a lack of civic values and the sense of civil capability required in order to live in a civilised order. To Yenning, what they fail to fathom, however, is a serious political element that is prominently displayed when illegal consumers just refuse to be legal, and therefore, defy to become responsible citizenship. What they do not understand, still more, is how the poor, illegal and irresponsible citizens resist the diktats of the Government in a different form. In this connection, the Government need to ponder why the massive majority of the citizens are poised to defy its diktats.
This attitude is not to be misunderstood as apathy and lack of civic virtue. This is, on the contrary, a serious move of resistance which is widely circulated in the non-bourgeois space where notions of civic and public are constituted in different forms with different articulations. Those who do not and cannot pay the bills and legally connect themselves to the power line would share this line among themselves. This is the language they speak and which the Government would not sit back to understand. In the official vocabulary of the Government, those who do not pay for electricity owned by the Government and its corporate partners are either defaulters or thieves. As we have commented last year in the wake of the previous disconnection drive, what the officials of the Government cannot understand is the meaning of the acts of defaulting and thievery in the way the defaulters and thieves alone do.
Now the moot question is: “Will the poorer people suddenly change their attitude and be ready to comply with the diktats of the electricity department?”
If we are not wrong, the recent workshop on issues and power supply management in Manipur was organised with the primary objective of finding a viable solution to the lingering power crisis rather than blaming one another between consumers and the Electricity Department as was stated by many speakers during the workshop.
Considering the various flaws of the Electricity Department and unnecessary tension and anxiety resulting out of the current drive, we would like to put down the following few suggestions;
Give a time period to the consumers to clear their dues and allow them to clear the bill on instalment basis.
Reduce the per unit charge of electricity to the affordable level that is rupees 3 per unit.
Stop archaic feudal style of taxing by removing compound interest in the calculation of electric bill.
Looking at the poor economic status of the general public and likely economic burden that may be resulted from their efforts to clear the due, we demand fifty percent waiving of the dues in the interest of the poorer section of the society, if not 100 per cent as demanded by a respected speaker at the recent workshop.
Last but not the least, if the Power Department cannot think beyond the disconnection drive which is at best the worst superficial treatment of the deep-rooted systematic failure, the power crisis would continue to plaque Manipur for many more years and sure enough, the present drive will end with a short circuit just like the previous one.
This article was published in The Sangai Express on Sunday, July 1, 2012