Covid-induced poverty and rising power bills make an explosive combination

In mid-February this year the police in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh registered a case against Kisan Gupta a resident of the city’s Vallabh Nagar slum. The case against him is an example of the rising tensions in the state due to the dire economic condition of poorer citizens in the state due to the impact of the Covid pandemic.

He is accused of trying to attack officials of a local electricity company with a sword when they had gone to collect the payment for his power bill.

“I do not have my own house, I live in a slum by occupying the place. I cannot find any work due to the Covid crisis. I have been sitting at home for three years. I am not even getting proper food. In this situation the electricity company  has been repeatedly asking for Rs 18,902 from me” says Kisan Gupta resident of Vallabh Nagar, Bhopal.

COVID Response Watch LogoThe government had put an embargo on collecting electricity dues since August 2020 due to the Covid pandemic and collection of dues restarted again in November 2021. However, thousands of people like Kisan Gupta could not recover from the economic impact of Covid and were not in a position to pay their bills.

The power companies forced such people to pay. Thousands of people took loans and deposited the bills, but people like Kisan Gupta who could not pay their bills had their service disconnected by their electricity company. On the company’s request, cases were registered against them in the police.

“One day I angrily told the company officials that I have no money. They said if you will not deposit, then we will switch off the electricity to the house. I could not stay in the dark at night, risking my life, so I got electricity from another house. When I said a few harsh things in anger to the people of the power company, I got a police case registered against me on 18th February 2022. The policemen harassed me. Though I have been released by the police the case against me has not been withdrawn nor the power bill withdrawn” says Gupta.

‘In the first week of March 2022, eight to ten electricity workers came and started removing power lines from the flour mill premises in our area. We told them that if you take out the wire, then the power will go off. How will we stay at night? There is an outbreak of mosquitoes. The kids will get upset. They do not sleep without a fan, everyone sleeps together in the house, space is less, mosquito nets cannot be installed. The staff did not listen to us and took away the wire” says Sohail Ikram, a resident of Shahjahanabad, Bhopal.

Slum residents argue that their electricity bills should also be waived just as has been done for those living in proper homes.

“The government is waiving the bills of those who are using electricity in their own homes with regular connections but recovering dues from those who do not have houses and who do not have a registered connection in their name. We live in the slums and anyway the government does nothing for us and now they are taking away our electricity connections too. This is a duplicitous attitude. After all we are human too” says Shanti Devi, a resident of the Kolar area in Bhopal.

“ The government does not want to improve our standard of living. Leaders come from street to street to take votes, but when we are in trouble no one comes. The people of the electricity company came in February 2022 and were turning off the electricity at our homes. If we cited poverty as a reason for not paying, they did not agree. They sent the police after us and we were accused of trying to kill the company officials. The power company has done injustice to us” says Kala Bai, from the same locality.

Due to the controversy caused by the forced recovery of electricity dues  and after filing dozens of cases against ordinary citizens, finally the government again waived the electricity bills.

“Bills worth Rs 6400 crore will not be recovered from 88 lakh consumers forever”, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan claimed in the Vidhan Sabha on  March 14, 2022. However, the government has not clarified the situation on whether people like Kisan Gupta, who had filed cases regarding these electricity bills, will be withdrawn or not.

“The government has forced the power companies to bear losses by announcing the waiver of electricity bills. Already, power companies have to take 20 thousand crore rupees of subsidy from the government. Now there is this plan to waive off electricity bills of 6400 crores rupees. Power companies will take loans from various banks to meet their expenses. Some have already taken it. Interest will also be charged on this loan amount, which will reflect in the company expenses. This expenditure will increase the cost of electricity for everyone, as the companies will show a loss by reporting the interest amount as part of the company’s expenses” says VKS Parihar, General Secretary MP Vidyut Mandal Engineer Association.

“No government should discriminate against its citizens in an epidemic like Covid, by waiving the bill for some and taking money from the rest. This method is not right. If the government does this, then poverty will be only increase and there will be discrimination among consumers who are paying regular bills. Covid is an epidemic that everyone has faced equally. If the government had to forgive the bills, then everyone’s bills should be forgiven” says Deepak Agarwal, a common power consumer in Bhopal.

Undoubtedly, the outcry over the unpaid electricity bills, a hangover from the Covid period, is likely to continue for a long time in M.P.

Ashok Kapse is a journalist based in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

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