Indian Power Thieves Keep Enforcers on the Hunt

It was still dark outside when a spidery man in
his underwear answered the knock at the factory door, releasing a
wave of heat and gritty smoke from the noisy room behind him.

This, the man was told, was a power raid. The engineers storming
past him were here to investigate electricity theft at this
basement plastics mill. Please step aside.

The problem is rampant in India, but especially in New Delhi, a
sprawling city of slums, factories, and politicians unaccustomed to
paying for power. When companies from the private sector partnered
with the government in 2002 to distribute the city's energy, more
than half of electricity generated was stolen.

Since then, the energy companies have aggressively fought to
stop the theft, a grueling battle that officials say they are
slowly winning.

In a country facing massive power shortages, fighting power
theft is an important way to make electricity distribution more
reliable, officials say. Still, the shortfall is massive. In a
nation of 1.2 billion, roughly 600 million people have no access to
electricity at all, and those who do endure rolling blackouts that
can last up to 12 hours. The demand is expected to grow by four to
five times over the next 25 years, but the country's antiquated
power grids are already overwhelmed.

India's energy deficit will be one of the most serious
challenges facing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he begins his
second term, and his administration is exploring nuclear, solar and
wind power to address the gap.

This industrial block in west Delhi, home to a litter of stray
puppies and a suspect plastics manufacturer, represents the front
lines in the war on energy theft.

Vikrant Seth, the private sector enforcement official leading
the raid, reviewed the plans in the pre-dawn darkness. He hoped
this would be a big one - four police officers would accompany the
team in case things turned violent, as they sometimes did.

A tired man with a thin mustache, Seth is one of the many people
fighting block-by-block to clean up the system. It's an unenviable
task. If Sisyphus had been Indian, his sentence might have been to
unsnarl the boulder-sized knots of wire that hang from every
electric pole.

Many Indians have a long-standing reluctance to pay for power,
dating back to the era when the state controlled nearly the entire
economy, including the energy sector, and securing a legal power
connection could take a lifetime. Power companies across the
country lose an average of 40 percent of the power generated,
according to a 2007 government report. The situation was especially
bad in New Delhi - the same report called the capital's state power
company "a corrupt and inefficient monopoly" that offered
"abysmally poor service."

Many people illegally tapped into the neighborhood connection,
betting that the authorities were too slow, or too corrupt, to stop
them. The resulting cobweb of power lines helped push the capital's
electric company more than $3 billion in debt in 2002.

That year, subsidiaries of Reliance ADA Group and Tata Group,
two of India's most powerful conglomerates, entered a partnership
with the government to distribute power in the capital and halt the
losses. Reliance and Tata had impressive track records in Mumbai,
the country's largest city, where power distribution losses are
among the lowest in the country.

Through dozens of power raids every week, among other
strategies, they have managed to dramatically reduce theft in
Delhi. BSES, the Reliance subsidiary that handles two-thirds of
Delhi's power, has sent more than 650 people to prison and booked
more than 114,000 cases in special courts that handle only
electricity cases. By the end of last year, BSES, where Seth works,
had cut theft from around 52 percent in 2002 to 28 percent. Seth's
bosses want to bring that down to 10 percent.

Before dawn on a recent Saturday, Seth corralled his men to
review details for the three raids planned for the morning. When
his crew was ready, Seth hopped into a white van, part of a large
convoy, and headed for the first target.

Inside the windowless plastics factory, an enormous, clanging
machine belched smoke as it spat out sheets of black plastic so
cheap it turned to powder in your hand. Two scrawny men sat on the
floor folding the plastic while a third slept in the corner.

A team of engineers checked the electric meters and inspected a
cable sticking up from the ground while others headed to the attic
to investigate suspicious wires hanging from the roof.

Outside, a police officer took off his shoes to nap inside a van
while Seth spoke urgently into his cell phone. The sun was
beginning to rise.

Nearly two hours after the raid at the plastics factory began,
the technicians walked outside shaking their head. They couldn't
prove that the factory was stealing power.

After signing sheets of paperwork, Seth climbed back into the
white van, not entirely convinced the factory owner wasn't
stealing. "We have to give him a clean chit," he sighed. "We
didn't find anything. The conclusion is we don't know."

He closed the car door and told the driver to turn around. They
had another address to raid.


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