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Power theft test for Mamata
- State utility to seek CM’s nod to relaunch crackdown

Calcutta, July 30: The state-run power distribution utility has decided to relaunch a crackdown on electricity theft to offset its financial woes, a move that had been approved by Mamata Banerjee but later stalled following the deaths of two protesters in police firing during one such drive.

Although the matter is “politically sensitive”, the West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company Ltd (WBSEDCL) has decided to restart the drive as a last-ditch attempt to reduce the estimated deficit of around Rs 2,500 crore. The proposal is likely to be submitted to the chief minister next week.

“The utility debated whether a crackdown on power theft could be done. Right now, we don’t have too many other options. That is why WBSEDCL is preparing a proposal to resume the drive — cautiously and with minimal use of force when met with resistance,” a power department source said.

WBSEDCL had managed to stay in the green for several years following the Centre’s power sector reforms in 2007. But since the Trinamul Congress government came to power in 2011, the utility has been facing deficits of around Rs 200 crore a month because of poor realisation. The government’s refusal to allow a power tariff hike on several occasions also hit WBSEDCL hard.

As WBSEDCL’s earnings have lagged behind its expenditure, it has often failed to pay the generation utility, which has also run up huge debts.

A major part of this deficit, according to Nabanna sources, is because of power theft, which can be curbed through stern administrative steps.

Months after becoming chief minister, Mamata had floated the idea of a crackdown on power theft. But the drive was stopped after the deaths of two protesters in police firing at South 24-Parganas’ Mograhat in December 2011. The chief minister had accused WBSEDCL of “callousness” and questioned the efficacy of such drives. Sources close to Mamata said her stand had not changed “at all”.

According to sources in WBSEDCL’s loss prevention cell, the utility could save Rs 300 crore a year if power theft is stopped. The sources said the “power theft-prone” areas in Bengal were spread over North and South 24-Parganas, Burdwan, Birbhum, Murshidabad, North and South Dinajpur and Darjeeling. In some pockets, WBSEDCL loses to theft 70 to 80 per cent of the power supplied.

Had the drive not been stalled in December 2011, the utility could have saved over Rs 1,100 crore by now, substantially improving its fiscal health.

The Nabanna sources said the government was unlikely to allow the power distributor to restart the crackdowns.

“Many people known to support the ruling party are allegedly involved in hooking and tapping,” a source said.

Nabanna officials said WBSEDCL had committed a “blunder” by conducting an anti-theft drive in a crime-prone zone like Mograhat, where a riotous situation had forced the police accompanying utility officials to open fire.

The utility, it was learnt from sources, is likely to approach the chief minister next week for her permission to relaunch the crackdown. It will also seek finance minister Amit Mitra’s help in the clearance of dues from various government departments. Several departments have run up cumulative dues of nearly Rs 600 crore.

An official said the government could help WBSEDCL realise its dues from the departments. The dues could be cleared in three to four instalments, according to him.