Thieves have struck in the heart of Kolkata, stealing from inside 400-volt distribution boxes of CESC.
The consequence has been prolonged power cuts for several neighbourhoods. Distribution boxes receive power from transformers and send them to households.
Each box usually caters to multiple small neighbourhoods, said a CESC official.
According to sources in CESC, which supplies power to most parts of Kolkata and adjoining areas, the main target of the thieves is a component called high-rupturing capacity (HRC) fuse.
“An HRC fuse protects circuits against overload and short circuits. Made of metals like brass and copper, it has a steady demand in the market. Even the metals have a value in the wholesale market,” said an engineer with the power utility.
On Wednesday, a search for an HRC fuse on Amazon threw up numerous results. The price ranged from around Rs 300 to upwards of Rs 5,000.
This newspaper had sent a detailed questionnaire to the CESC spokesperson. Till late on Wednesday, a response had yet to come.
The CESC officials this newspaper spoke to requested anonymity. The thefts and the misery they are inflicting on Kolkata highlight several issues of concern.
The thefts have been reported from the heart of the city as well as fringes. Among the affected areas are Chakraberia, Sarat Bose Road, Ballygunge Circular Road, Dover Road, Beniapukur, Taltala, Muchipara and Alipore, which make up areas covering southwest, south and central Kolkata, police and CESC officials said.
On Tuesday, a neighbourhood in Ballygunge in south Kolkata had a power cut around noon. When power was restored, it was well past 5pm.
What is in a crime book a “petty theft” has brought misery on thousands of Kolkatans who depend on uninterrupted power supply — children for online classes, adults for work from home and patients dependent on power-backed medical equipment.
Another concern is that these boxes, left unattended in a city where electrocutions on roads are reported from time to time, open up deadly possibilities.
What makes things worse is the lack of information.
On Tuesday, one of the residents of the area filed a complaint with CESC. A docket number was issued. A customary message from the utility said: “Sorry for the inconvenience. We are trying our best to restore supply at the earliest.”
“The helpline did not say what the cause of the power cut was,” said the resident. In case of faults in cables or high-tension lines, consumers get a message, sometimes in advance, about impending power cuts.
A CESC official said replacement of equipment inside a box could take between “15 minutes and several hours, depending on the scale of the loss”.
A thief not aware of the intricacies of distribution boxes will in all likelihood get electrocuted while stealing from a 400-distribution box, said CESC officials.
“A last-mile transformer downgrades 11,000-volt supply to 400-volt, before sending it to a distribution transformer. The distribution transformer sends it to distribution boxes. The boxes send the supply to individual houses,” said an engineer.
The police said arrests had been made in most cases.
“Apparently, these thefts are not the handiwork of any organised gang but are committed by individuals who can easily access the fuse. We have also found in many cases the men who were involved had at some point in time worked as labourers during the installation of the feeder boxes and hence, were aware of the technique to remove the fuse without getting electrocuted,” said an officer in the south division of Kolkata police.
A CESC official said an amateur electrician could also possibly remove the fuse without getting electrocuted.
Another senior officer in Lalbazar said multiple meetings had been held between the police and the CESC officials, where the utility was advised to install locks on the boxes.
“We had advised CESC on multiple occasions to install a lock mechanism that could be operated only by their technicians,” said the officer in Lalbazar.
Several boxes have already been placed under a “lock-and-key system”, said CESC officials. But sources in the utility also said it could not be “a permanent solution”.
“We don’t have fixed technicians for each box. In case of a permanent lock, who do we keep the key with?” he asked.
A police officer posted in central Kolkata said given the number of distribution boxes on the roads, it was not possible to individually guard all of them or cover them all under CCTV cameras.