The third-largest producer of electricity in the world, India has been making multiple efforts to produce more electricity than it consumes. Yet, power outages are routine for the average Indian. This is particularly the case in Uttar Pradesh, a power-rich state with power-deficient people.
At any given time, approximately a fifth of the state’s more than 10 million consumers are typically without electricity!
Much of this deficiency is due to non-technical line losses – like electricity theft, meter tampering and non-payment of dues. This has a huge impact on the profitability, performance and service predictability of state power distribution companies. This is evident from the fact that UP has an average line loss of 35% while the national permissible standard is 5.1%.
It was this ever-rising graph of line loss that made IAS officer Ritu Maheshwari vow to plug the real-time leaks in the power distribution system. Appointed as the managing director of Kanpur Electricity Supply Co. KESCO in 2011, she launched a dedicated drive to catch power thieves, fix tampered meters and make consumers pay their bill on time.
Six years on, her tireless efforts have already started bearing positive results. As per the data on the power ministry’s website, losses at KESCO have reduced to 15.6 per cent (half of the loss levels in 2015). This is an incredible improvement as a reduction in line loss by 1% can save approximately ₹ 1.85 billion!
Here’s the inspiring story of IAS officer Ritu Maheshwari’s battle against Kanpur’s corrupt, power-pilfering nexus.
Three years after graduating from the Punjab Engineering College in 2000, Maheshwari cleared the UPSC examination and joined Indian Administrative Service. In 2011, she took charge as the chief executive of state-owned KESCO, then a debt-ridden power supply company incurring a line loss of 30%.
The huge losses that KESCO had been incurring for years had pushed it to the brink of liquidation. With uncollected dues of more than ₹2000 crore, the utility firm had reached a situation where it was unable to buy more power from the grid or invest in new transformers to replace faulty ones.
The first thing Maheshwari did was installing new meters across almost 1/3rd of the company’s consumer base i.e 160,000 meters of 500,000. She knew that the real-time data collected on energy consumption would benefit both the customers and the utility company. It would allow customers to make adjustments to their consumption while exposing leaks and letting KESCO better manage consumption against power theft.
But this was easier said than done. Along with protests from pilfering consumers, resistance also came from higher and more powerful levels. Her efforts also infuriated a local politician who, at one point, barged into her office railing against her work.
Many members of her office staff were also bribed to provide information about the dates and locations of upcoming power-theft investigations. This enabled the thieves to temporarily remove the illegal wire hooks (that directly tap on to the power line) before the investigation team arrived.
“People thought I could be fooled or manipulated, because what would a woman know about electricity and complex grids? Staff members at different levels were not happy with the kind of measures being taken, whether it was metering or raids on theft. Insiders passed on information.” recalled Maheshwari in an interview to Bloomberg.
Nonetheless, Maheshwari’s technology initiatives prove to be a game changer in the battle against power theft. The real-time visibility provided by the smart meters and software analytics alerted the authorities to un-monitored consumption, tampered meters and unusually heavy load imbalances caused by power thefts. As a result, there was a dramatic reduction in KESCO’s distribution losses.
However, falling foul of the state’s political powers did have its negative consequences. Eleven months after she took over as KESCO’s MD, Maheshwari was transferred to a central deputation. But the determined IAS officer was not the one to give up. She continued her efforts to bolster cash-strapped state utilities while addressing the needs of honest consumers.
It was on Maheshwari’s suggestion that the Urja Mitra (Friends of Energy) programme was launched across India in 2015. Under this, a mobile app was developed through which consumers would receive advance notification of power outages, enabling them to plan their schedule accordingly.
Another of her initiatives was to highlight the need for technological upgradations and digitization of the power distribution system, through hi-tech meters, wiring, transformers etc. Thanks to her experience in Kanpur, she understood the vicious cycle of power theft.
Rising line losses make power supply companies reluctant to buy additional electricity to meet the consumer demand. This shortage then makes power unaffordable (and non-existent in cases) for a major chunk of the population who then resort to illegal means and clandestine connections.
Thus, reduced line losses, accurate billing and efficient payment collection due to tech upgradation can not only thwart power theft, but it can also provide a more stable and affordable service to customers.
It was with this strategy in mind that the government-run Energy Efficiency Services Ltd. issued its first tender for the procurment of 5 million smart meters through an international competitive bidding process. These smart meters will be used in a pilot project (in which 4 million meters will go to Uttar Pradesh while the rest go to Haryana) aimed at lowering technical and commercial losses of power retailers. The project was headed by Maheshwari till a few weeks ago.
Last week, 39-year-old Maheshwari took over as the new district magistrate (DM) of Ghaziabad district. She has earlier served as the DM of JP Nagar, Ghazipur, Pilibhit and Shahjahanpur. Interestingly, her battle against power thieves and corrupt politicians was depicted in an 80-minute documentary, Katiyabaaz, in 2014.
Known for her courage, conviction and attention to detail, Ritu Maheshwari has spearheaded a much-needed transformation in power supply companies across the country. Thanks to innovative and pro-active officers like her, a positive change in Indian governance is finally rolling in.