On February 22 hundreds of people from Rajasthan protested the huge hike in electricity bills by marching starting a march from the city of Nohar in Hanumangarh district to the state capital of Jaipur. The protest began by extending support to farmers who have already been protesting for over three months against the Farm Laws.
After travelling over 300 kms and stopping to extend support to groups of farmers along the way, the protesters reached Jaipur. A large gathering at the Bais Godam area in Jaipur saw those arriving from Hanumangarh being joined by people from Jaipur, some of whom arrived with their own electricity bills.
For the past one and a half years several consumers in Hanumangarh have been on a civil disobedience movement against what they see as “rampant loot”. They say the price they pay for electricity has soared unreasonably and they are now refusing to pay. The Bijli Upbhogta Sangharsh Samiti, a committee representing power consumers, said the people had no option but to “boycott illogical bills”.
The state has a strong position in power generation, the Samiti said in a statement, questioning why the rates of electricity in Rajasthan were among the highest in the country. In February 2020 the state hiked power tariff by 11%.The minimum cost per unit was raised to Rs 7.95 and other charges were also hiked. At the time it was estimated that the hike would yield the state government an additional Rs 4,800 crore annually.
India Today reported: “For residential consumers, the first 50 units have been revised to Rs 4.75, 51 units to 150 from Rs 6.10 to Rs 6.50, 151 to 300 units stand revised from Rs 6.40 to 7.35, 301 to 500 from Rs 6.70 to Rs 7.65 and beyond 500 units consumption, one has to pay at Rs 7.95 per unit. Electric vehicle charging stations are placed under a new category and will be charged Rs 6 per unit.”
In Kerala, for instance, households consuming less than 250 units a month pay only Rs 2.90 per unit for the first 50 units; the per unit charge for households consuming over 250 units a month, in the highest slab, is Rs 7.60 per unit.
The committee, which has been protesting the steep hike in power bills, has petitioned the state government in Rajasthan several times to no avail. With the government seen as unresponsive, it has taken the movement to the people of the state and submitted a memorandum to the chief minister and the power minister.
“Behind all these issues a big and comprehensive plan is underway to privatise the power sector and convert it from a means of public service to a means of profit. The public sector enterprises, in the name of making themselves profitable, in the name of increasing investment in the state and country by making cheap energy available to domestic and multinational companies, these electricity discoms enter into MoUs with various agencies (power companies, central government etc) with various terms and conditions, purchase electricity at exorbitant rates, and pass this burden on to consumers (sic),” the committee leading this protest noted in a statement.
“Electricity consumers and farmers are fighting plunder by private companies. Many people have stopped paying bills – not just in protest, but simply because they cannot pay them. Punitive action by the power companies is also taking place. Notices and threats are sent and electricity is cut off. It results in people lacking access to water too. Unemployment, the price rise and the travails of education online have left us with no recourse but to take to the streets,” said Johana Mahrat, who had arrived in Jaipur from Hanumangarh for the protest gathering.
The demands of the protesters are:
Reverse hike in electricity bills.
Cancel bills charged for the lockdown period, when household consumption may have increased as more people stayed home; it was also a time when job losses had occurred.
Stop the “fixed charges”.
Offer the first 200 units of electricity free to every household.
Change faulty meters.
Stop privatisation of the electricity department.
Take back the Electricity Amendment Bill, 2020.
Repeal all three agriculture laws passed without consultation with farmer organizations and without observing proper procedure in Parliament.
Enact a law to enforce Minimum Support Price; make sale of agriculture produce under MSP punishable under law.
Universalise the Public Distribution System – give food subsidy to all those in need.
Protests against steep hikes in electricity bills have occurred elsewhere in the country too. In Maharashtra, protesters burned their electricity bills in November 2020. In Kerala, protesters shut off their lights in June 2020 complaining that they were billed without checking their meters as workers did not go house-to-house to read meters during the lockdown. There were protests in Punjab too.
Alongside the three Farm Laws, farmers at Delhi’s borders are also opposed to the Electricity Amendment Bill 2020, which provides for a direct transfer of the subsidy amount into the bank accounts of beneficiaries after consumers pay the full price for electricity.
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Pune. She is currently working on a report on urban farming, under a fellowship programme with the People’s Resource Centre, New Delhi)