Sucheta Dalal :Power play and a fight to switch a switch
Sucheta Dalal

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Power play and a fight to switch a switch  

December 2, 2009

Any consumer who has switched over from his Reliance Infrastructure Ltd (RelInfra) connection to Tata Power Co Ltd (TP) will know, or at least should know, Sandeep Ohri. His battle for consumers to posses the right to switch service providers began three years ago and fructified recently with him being the first customer to make the actual switch.

Like many other consumers who were part of this battle, Mr Ohri’s fight was originally against high and unreasonable power tariffs. The struggle has now achieved a significant milestone with customers having the power to select a power supplier of their choice. Breaking the electricity distribution monopoly, in what was formerly a public sector domain, was no easy task. We bring you a blow-by-blow account.

A sharp spike in his own electricity bill was, predictably enough, the starting point for Mr Ohri. “One fine day in 2006, the electricity bill at one of our godowns shot up from Rs200 to Rs10,800. I was really shocked, since there was no activity going on at that place. The place was just utilised as a godown and only 14 units were consumed,” said Mr Ohri. In some ways, he is now glad that he was a victim. “It was only after I received a high bill, that I started understanding the issue and have been able to demystify the electricity sector for consumers,” added Mr Ohri.

He started by writing letters to everyone who had any authority—among the people he approached were the chief minister, the power minister and even the prime minister. Only one person responded. It was Rakshpal Abrol, president of an NGO called Bharatiya Udhami Avam Upbhogata Sangh. Mr Abrol had been working actively for this cause for several years and provided insights into the issue. Mr Ohri also began to understand the legal issues and simultaneously set up Bijlee, an online Yahoo group to demystify the power scenario for the average consumer.

“I started reading up on the legal issues involved. I became half an advocate myself, going to court and arguing because no lawyer wanted to represent us. One also cannot afford to pay lawyers to fight such battles. We started participating in MERC (Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission) hearings, raising objections and making presentations on behalf of consumers. We held public meetings and tried to educate people on the issue,” says Mr Ohri about the process his group adopted.

Finally, the activists were able to turn up the heat by persuading around 150 people to attend MERC hearings instead of the six or seven who were attending such meetings earlier. What proved to be a major breakthrough was the realisation that TP had a license to supply power all over Mumbai. “We came to know that MERC had earlier stopped TP from supplying to retail consumers, due to objections from RelInfra. So TP took up the case with MERC, then it went to the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity (ATE) and then to the Supreme Court. Finally, last year, the Supreme Court said that TP had a license to supply electricity all over Mumbai—and the monopoly was broken. However, there was no methodology in place (for consumer switchover) so another year was wasted behind that,” added Mr Ohri.

Though there was an SC order in place, TP was still not supplying power to Mumbai as there was no specific switchover policy from RelInfra. “I wrote to MERC asking them to call a hearing, to work out the policy,” said Mr Ohri.

In June 2009, MERC had issued an order allowing TP to supply electricity to any RelInfra consumer who wished to switch services. Under section 43 (1) of the Electricity Act 2003, the consumers in some areas fulfilling the eligibility conditions, have the opportunity to choose their power supplier and the chosen company has to provide electricity within 30 days. But plenty of hurdles had to be overcome before the actual switchover could take place. Once again, Mr Ohri led the way. His switchover process was the test case.

“After MERC’s order allowing the switchover, I sent a letter to RelInfra, stating that I did not want their connection. I told them to disconnect the connection, as I had already applied for a new connection with TP; I was supposed to get a new connection within 30 days. However, RelInfra gave me all kinds of excuses, saying that the switchover procedure had still not been established. TP gave me the meter within the stipulated 30-day period. I asked RelInfra to remove its meter, and even offered to remove it myself. RelInfra said if I did so, it would register a case against me for tampering with the meter,” said Mr Ohri.

This started another battle before MERC to prescribe the switchover procedure. Finally an order was passed in October 2009 outlining the exact procedure for the switchover. Following this, Mr Ohri was given a switchover date, which was revised four times. Finally, he was among the first consumers to switch over from RelInfra to TP in November 2009.

“I had around eight officers turning up for the switchover (process); they were from RelInfra as well as TP. They took a joint meter reading, taught each other on how to read their respective meters and then shook hands,” said Mr Ohri.

On being asked if the actual switchover date was his day of triumph, Mr Ohri said, “The most important milestone for me is that the petition I had filed on is today a reality.”

In 2007, Mr Ohri had filed a petition on a website, which called for breaking the monopoly in the electricity sector. “At that time, such a petition was unheard of and I wanted the monopoly to be broken. I am happy it has happened,” said Mr Ohri.

Looking back on his struggle, Mr Ohri said that at times, he was close to losing his motivation. But somebody had to fight the battle. “My driver received a monthly bill of Rs800, for using a tube-light and a ceiling fan,” said Mr Ohri. He wanted to carry on his fight for such hapless individuals with a view on his larger social responsibilities.

Speaking of the worst nightmare he has faced in this struggle, Mr Ohri said, “Through an RTI (Right to Information) application, we found that RelInfra had no license from MERC for power distribution in Mumbai. The license was in the name of erstwhile power utility Bombay Suburban Electricity Supply (BSES). I wrote about this (fact) on my blog. RelInfra served me with a five-page notice alleging defamation. I had no clue this could happen and then after some online research, I found out that you could be jailed for defamation charges,” recalled Mr Ohri. He also received a couple of threatening calls, which could not be traced to any entity.

At present, there are three electricity suppliers in Mumbai. RelInfra (erstwhile Reliance Energy), which bought BSES, supplies electricity to more than half the city. Tata Power supplies electricity to limited areas as well as to some bulk consumers while Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Co Ltd (MahaDiscom) provides electricity to a few extended suburbs.

After all these ups and downs, Mr Ohri has won himself and many more consumers in the city the right to choose their power supply provider. However, he still continues with his good work in this arena.

Last week, Mr Ohri had spent a couple of hours providing TP’s Information Technology team a few tips on how to make their site more user-friendly for customers wanting to switch over.

Various NGOs and politicians have approached Mr Ohri to help him in his cause, but he has steered clear of any such associations. “What can I do if an NGO changes its agenda later? Politicians have also asked me to share data (about the customers wanting to switch over) but I have told them that all the information is available in the public domain. I have refused to join them,” said Mr Ohri.

In his struggle, Mr Ohri has often been dubbed a TP supporter. Refuting this allegation, he told Moneylife, “I do not favour either RelInfra or TP. I am with the consumer.”

Next on his agenda is to oppose the ‘wheeling’ charges that RelInfra is charging its customers for switching over to TP. “My major concern is RelInfra’s move to demerge the (power distribution) business, (relegating it) to a smaller subsidiary named Reliance Energy Ltd, without transferring adequate assets. My concern is that customers have already paid for the entire (RelInfra) infrastructure that has been set up. Second, I believe we don’t have to pay the wheeling charges and for the (cost of the) meter, since RelInfra has already recovered it from us (erstwhile RelInfra customers) from its tariff,” said Mr Ohri.

He concluded on a lighter note, describing how he wished to retain the old RelInfra meter at the time of the switchover. “I was really tempted to retain the meter, considering that I had already paid for it,” said Mr Ohri.
–Amritha Pillay

-- Sucheta Dalal