By D. Shrinivas
Parbhani, May 18 (IANS/ 101Reporter): March 20, 2022, was a hot summer day in Parbhani district of Maharashtra's Marathwada.
As the sun shone bright and the temperatures soared above 40 degrees Celisus, the fans here slowly rotated to a stop, and the lights blinkered off.
The blistering day took a turn for the worse as the power supply to 221 villages in the district was disconnected allegedly because of unpaid electricity dues worth Rs 58.45 crore.
Among the 221 villages - 66 were from Jintur tehsil, with collective dues worth Rs 22.22 crore; 34 from Purna tehsil (Rs 15.19 crore); 25 from Gangakhed tehsil (Rs 1.32 crore); 20 from Parbhani tehsil (Rs 15.29 crore); and 21 from Pathri tehsil (Rs 6.12 crore), as per data shared by the state electricity board to 101Reporters.
However, a number of villagers from Pathri claimed to have received inflated electricity bills during the lockdown. They approached the electricity board but to no avail. As a result, many refused to pay the exorbitant amounts, accumulating dues month after month.
Ramchandra Mohite, a resident of Jintur, told 101Reporters that he usually received a monthly electricity bill of Rs 350. However, during the lockdown, his receipts read Rs 1,700, Rs 1,200, and Rs 900. His complaints fell on deaf ears.
"Many villagers had the same experience. We are poor people. We don't have refrigerators, air conditioners and washing machines in our homes that would consume this much power. Now, the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company (MSEDCL) is asking us to pay the pending amount with interest," he said, referring to the late fee imposed on them.
Without alluding to any relief for the affected villagers, MSEDCL Joint Managing Director Mangesh Gondavale had said in March, "We have to recover at least 20 per cent of the current and pending electricity bills. So if anybody wants an uninterrupted electricity supply, they need to clear their dues."
The power supply to 221 villages in the district was disconnected allegedly because of unpaid electricity dues worth Rs 58.45 crore.
Inflated bills, continuing cuts
Over the past two years, Maharashtra has frequently witnessed mass power cuts, especially in rural regions. In fact, higher-than-usual bills due to the increased use of electricity in homes during the lockdown became a political issue last year, with opposition leaders calling for relief.
According to a report, in December 2021, the MSEDCL had disconnected the power supply to 1,254 Zilla Parishad schools across the Marathwada region for failing to clear outstanding dues.
Moreover, at the peak of the second wave last year, 60 villages in Nashik's Trimbekeshwar tehsil had no electricity for eight to 10 days. So much so that villagers here were worried about a possible rise in animal-human conflict in the dark, since most of these villages were in hilly forest areas.
Government offices weren't spared from these power cuts either. Earlier this year, the electricity supply to six government offices in Pune was cut due to pending bills, causing even more problems among laymen who couldn't efficiently avail of essential services.
According to another report, the surge in demand for electricity due to higher temperatures this year led to a deficit of around 2,500 to 3,000 megawatts in power and Vidharbha, Marathwada and Khandesh will continue to face load shedding.
The report further added that "efforts to get power from alternative sources are on a war-footing. This includes availing 673 MW from the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited until June 25."
Also, on April 9, the Maharashtra Cabinet reportedly approved the purchase of 760 MW of power from Coastal Gujarat Power to address the power shortage across the state.
Load-shedding continues due to coal shortage
Soon after lights went out in these hundreds of villages in Marathwada and there was an uproar in the assembly, Maharashtra Energy Minister Nitin Raut announced that power will be restored to those farmers who hadn't paid their dues and there will be no disconnections for the next three months.
He also announced the Agricultural Pump Power Connection Policy 2020 to make allowances for the recovery of arrears from users of agricultural pumps. Raut had said that "the policy enables agricultural consumers to clear the arrears in instalments, with rebates in the principal amount, interest and penalties until 2024".
After days of going without electricity, Parbhani was back on the grid in the first week of April after some of the villagers visited their local EB offices and paid a certain amount, committing to pay the rest in the near future.
However, even while the power supply was restored on paper, most of the villages here continue to deal with seven to eight hours of load-shedding every day due to the coal crisis. Urban centres like Pune, Mumbai and neighbouring Thane and Navi Mumbai will not be affected, as these areas have lower power distribution losses and good recovery of bill payment, according to the distributor.
Maharashtra is reeling under a major power crisis, with eight of its thermal plants left with less than a week's stock of coal. At least three of Maharashtra's 12 thermal power stations reported "supercritical" levels of coal stock. All of this as the summer heat bears down on the people of the state.
Moreover, the Maharashtra State Power Generation Company (MahaGenco) has an installed capacity of 13,602 MW, of which 9,550 MW is dependent on coal. MahaGenco's stock of coal, too, isn't encouraging, estimated to last between 0.90 and 7.21 days, an EB official told 101Reporters at the heels of the widespread disconnections in March.
Tukaram Adhav, a resident of Babulgaon, managed to pay Rs 11,000 to the electricity board after borrowing money from his relatives.
"My power supply was restored on April 5, but immediately after that, the board imposed compulsory load-shedding. If they don't want to provide power, why are they collecting money from us? I borrowed money from relatives unnecessarily," the 45-year-old told 101Reporters in frustration.
Farmers, students left in the lurch
In the ongoing harvest season, many villagers have found it challenging to carry out farming activities in the face of power cuts. For instance, one Appaso Thorat needs to run a pump to irrigate his farm.
"As you know, diesel prices are skyrocketing, but we have to purchase it to save our crop. At the same time, we have to pay electricity bills. Can the government give us good rates for our farm produce?" he questioned.
Another farmer, 42-year-old Raghunath Kurdane of Babulgaon, has 1.5 acres with Rs 12,200 due in electricity bills. He told 101Reporters that the MSEDCL had not given any warning before disconnecting the power supply to his house.
"I'm a farmer who does not have the means to pay such dues. We requested time to settle the bills, but they refused and disconnected the power supply," Kurdane added.
Since power cuts are a regular feature of rural life in this region, the farmers here have largely learned to cope without electricity. For instance, farmers who can't afford the diesel to run water pumps use "bullock mot" to draw water from the well. However, many are forced to leave their crops dry as they can't afford any means of irrigation.
The power cuts are also a source of worry for students who've been preparing for their annual state board examinations. Arvind Chapke, a Class 10 student from Pathri, said they had to use kerosene lamps to study at night. His father had requested MSEDCL to restore their power for the sake of the students but in vain. Similarly, Shyam Kamble, a student preparing for the Class 12 board exams, uses the headlights of a two-wheeler with his classmates to study at night.
Furthermore, in the advent of illnesses — exacerbated by the heat — many villagers were left without the resources to call an ambulance because their phones had run out of battery.
Gangubai Sonamate from Babulwadi pointed out how she had to prepare food for her family before sunset, or would have to cook in the light of a kerosene lamp.
This isn't unique to Maharashtra of course. Non-payment of dues and penalties in the form of load shedding in rural areas is a widespread problem. Shantanu Dixit, a founding member of Prayas (Energy Group) said that rural areas have higher technical and commercial losses and the issue of non-payment coming on top of that puts a lot of stress on the finances of distribution companies.
He said that the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission had put in place a protocol more than a decade ago that takes into account these AT&C losses while planning load shedding. So the more losses, the more likely the power cuts due to load shedding.