Power sector employees across India will go on a 24-hour strike on 7 December 2018 in protest against the Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2014 — which seeks to extend privatisation to the distribution of electricity, and consequently, to snatch away the right to electricity of the poor.
And in case the BJP-led NDA government attempts to introduce the Bill in Parliament before that date, then the electricity employees’ unions will observe a flash strike.
These decisions were taken unanimously on 8 June 2018 in Delhi during the National Convention of the National Coordination Committee of Electricity Employees and Engineers (NCCOEEE) — a platform of all unions and federations in the power sector with more than 2.5 million members.
More than 500 employees and engineers of electricity departments from across the country turned up for the National Convention held in association with all the major central trade unions to plan out the future course of action against the amendment Bil. Electricity employees have been opposing the Bill, which seeks to replace the Electricity Act 2003, ever since it was first introduced in December 2014.
The Bill seeks to bifurcate the distribution of power into into carriage (the distribution network carrying the electricity to consumers) and supply (or the sale of electricity to consumers).
Basically, the government will lay down the wires that carry the electricity up to the consumer, while private companies will do the actual selling of the electricity. The Bill also introduces multiple supply licensees who would be supplying electricity, so they would be competing over selling the power. But one of the supply licensees has to be a government-owned licensee, who can cater to the loss-making segments of consumers, such as rural households and farmers. The move is clearly meant to separate out the more profitable aspects of distribution that can be taken over by the private players. This will create the scope of business for private enterprises in power distribution without any investment.
Speaking at the Convention, Shailendra Dubey, the chairman of the All India Power Engineers Federation (AIPEF), said the government’s claim that consumers would be able to choose from among power suppliers in the same way that they currently choose from among mobile phone service providers was false. That is because while everyone pays the same rate for using the cell phone network, electricity is provided at different rates to different categories of consumers. Small-scale consumers like households and farmers are usually given electricity at subsidised rates, while large-scale consumers like industrial units are charged more. This cross-subsidy from large consumers helps the distribution companies (discoms) to provide cheap electricity to the people.
However, given that the Bill mandates that one of the supply licensees has to be a government agency, it is clear that the intention is to make the government companies cater to these loss-making segments — given that private companies operate with the sole intention of making profits and would not venture into losses. This will saddle the government discoms with more and more mounting losses.
Already, the state-owned distribution companies (discoms) have accumulated total losses and debt of over Rs 9 lakh crore, said Dubey, who was among those helming the successful power employees’ movement in Uttar Pradesh that forced the state BJP government to roll back the move to privatise power distribution.
The losses in state-owned discoms are largely because they have no control over the cost of generation, where private companies have taken over, following the “unbundling” of the power sector after the Electricity Act 2003, but more on that later.
If the Bill is passed, the crisis in the power sector would worsen to an unimaginable degree, and there would not even be the benefit of cross-subsidy through which the government could continue catering to the common people and the poor. This would result in erratic supply, power cuts, etc for those who cannot afford to pay more to private companies, while the cost of power supply would sky-rocket for all consumers.
Tapan Sen, general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions, said this struggle of the power employees was meant to protect the common people, the poor. He said 30% of the people in the country do not have access to electricity, despite Modi’s tall promises for 100% electrification, etc.
Sen said the Bill would likely be introduced in the next session of the Parliament, and it would likely be made to pass as well, as there was general political consensus in favour of the corporates among all — except the Left. That’s why it is imperative to intensify the fight and spread awareness among the people.
Sen asserted that electricity workers might need to go on a nationwide flash strike whenever the government attempted to table the Bill, and all unions should be prepared for that.
Amarjit Kaur, general secretary of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) said the Right to Electricity must be recognised as a human right in modern life when it would be next to impossible for people to live and function without electricity.
Indeed, among the main demands of the NCCOEEE is that the Right to Electricity be ensured to each and every citizen.
The coordination committee said “electricity” was being converted into “exploitricity”, not just because of exclusion of the people so that the power sector could be exploited for profits by private players, but also because of the massive magnitude of exploitation of the workers employed on a casual/contract/outsourcing basis in the power sector across the country. The NCCOEEE also demanded that the government put an end to contract/casual/outsourced labour in the electricity sector.
Several other leaders of trade unions and power employees’ federations also addressed the crowd at the Ghalib Institute Auditorium in the Capital. The National Convention comes after several protests and regional conferences against the Bill held over the past few months in various parts of the country, including a massive protest in Delhi on 3 April, when thousands of electricity employees from all over the country stormed Parliament Street.
The Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2014 will replace the Electricity Act 2003, which had replaced the Electricity (Supply) Act 1948.
The 2003 Act had dismantled the State Electricity Boards and had trifurcated them into three separate entities — catering to generation, transmission and distribution. This move was in keeping with the World Bank model of “unbundling” of the power sector, which would allow entry of private companies into the safer and more profitable aspects.
As a result, a large number of private companies entered power generation, even as transmission and distribution remained with the state governments, except for a few cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Surat and Ahmedabad, where there are privately owned distribution licensees. In Odisha, the privatisation of distribution failed spectacularly and had to be rolled back. At present only Kerala and Himachal Pradesh continue to have integrated state electricity boards.
The main demands of the NCCOEEE National Convention put forward the following demands to the central government:
1) Adverse impacts imposed upon electricity consumers and employees with implementation of Electricity Act 2003 should be reviewed by the independent experts. Re-integrating the unbundled Power sector should be done at top most priority like KSEB Ltd in Kerala & HPSEB Ltd in HP.
2) Stop enactment of proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill in Parliament without prior discussion with the representatives of organisations of electricity employees and engineers as assured by the former MIC Power, Government of India in several meetings took place between Power Minister with leaders of NCCOEEE in 2015 and 2016.
3) Government of India as well as state Governments, on the backdrop of accumulation of high loss in spite of multi-time tariff hike through past two decades should develop vibrant consultation forum comprising representatives of National/state level organisations of workers and engineers to save the public-owned Power sector from total bankruptcy.
4) National Power Policy should have sustainable balance on utilisation of indigenous resources and production capacity with commensuration of affordability of our people.
5) Comply with Apex Court order for ‘Equal Wage for Equal Work’ and put complete hold upon engagement of contract/casual/outsourced workers in regular operation and maintenance jobs pending regularisation of existing contract/casual/outsourced workers and engineers.
6) Implement old pension scheme for all power employees and engineers irrespective of date of recruitment.
7) Ensure safe working condition in risk-prone jobs in Electricity industry.
8) Stop transfer of natural energy resources to the hands of private capitalists.
9) Stop disinvestment in Energy Sector PSUs of India.
10) Ensure ‘Right to Energy as Human Right’.