Protest Against Power Tariff Hike Intensifies, Activists Continue Hunger Strike in Jail
Protestors gathered at Subodh Mullick Square in Kolkata on 8th of September, retaliating to the unjust incarceration of eight activists who have been on an indefinite hunger strike since 5th September against the recent power tariff hikes imposed by CESC and WBSEDCL.
Three days before the police attack, a large group of protestors under the banner ‘Bidyut Mashul Bridhdhi Birodhi Gono Andolan’ (People’s Movement Against Power Tariff Hike) started a hunger strike in front of Victoria House, the CESC headquarters in Central Kolkata. The following day, the police attacked the fasting protestors and eight of them were arrested. When these activists were produced in front of the Bankshal Court, they refused to be released on bail, choosing instead to continue their hunger strike in prison until all demands are met.
“CESC caters to 29 lakh consumers. The state owned WBSEDCL supplies power to nearly 1.5 crore consumers across the state. We note with grave concern that despite this decision adversely affecting such a large number of people in the state, the state government, opposition parties and the mainstream media are maintaining silence over the issue. We, as citizens of West Bengal, feel that this power tariff hike is unjustified and is being imposed in an undemocratic manner. Such a move needs to be unitedly opposed.” a statement by People’s Movement Against Power Tariff Hike said.
A report published by the Central Electricity Authority for 2013-14 showed that CESC and WBSEDCL charges the highest rates among all the power distribution companies of the country (541 and 495 paisa per unit respectively for 100 units of monthly consumption from urban domestic consumers in 2013-14).
CESC (Calcutta Electricity Supply Company), the sole power distribution company in Kolkata, Howrah and adjoining areas, merged with the RPG Enterprises owned Spencer’s Retail in 2007, giving the Goenkas 55% of its equity share. At the time the merger was planned “to leverage the balance sheet of the the power utility (CESC) to fund the expansion plan” for Spencer’s Retail outlets across the country.
Spencer’s officials were expecting to post profit from the third quarter of 2013-14. However, the subsidiary of CESC Ltd has reported a net loss of Rs.114 crore for the 2014-15 fiscal year. The company had reported a net loss of Rs.111 crore during the previous financial year. In December 2014, the group’s Sector Head – Retail, Shashwat Goenka announced a demerger. In a press conference he said, “The demerger issue will be taken forward after we register profit.” Asked when the retail chain was expected to post break-even, Goenka said, “Very soon,” without giving any timeline and adding that “targets are internal.”
“The money trail makes it obvious who these hikes are meant to benefit.” said a student protestor. She added, “It is outrageous that in the world’s largest democracy the common people are still expected to bail out large corporations while the government and its pet police force are working against the very people who elected them to power.”
In a statement issued recently, the agitating group said, “85% of the total net profits of the RP – Sanjiv Goenka Group of companies comprise of CESC’s profits alone. Because of the certainty of cost recovery from consumers, and the rubber-stamp status of the WBERC, the CESC has not been exercising due diligence to ensure managerial and operative efficiency. In order to address the problem of high power tariff in the long term, it is necessary to break the monopoly of the CESC in Kolkata and adjoining areas.”
The statement accuses the WBERC (West Bengal Electricity Regulation Comission) of being completely ineffective as currently two posts of the three stipulated full time members of the Commission, including that of the Chairperson, are lying vacant. Tariff orders for CESC and WBSEDCL are signed by a lone member of the WBERC and there are no representatives of consumers. Neither are public hearings held to discuss tariff determination and other issues related to power supply.
The Left Front chairperson Biman Bose has since supported the movement, saying the CESC had raised power charges by 61 per cent every 100 units from April 2011 to April 2015. Not surprisingly of course, he chose to attack the ruling party rather than the company, saying, “While the profits of CESC has increased in leaps and bounds, people of Kolkata have been left to suffer. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the state power minister (Manish Gupta) have claimed that Bengal has electricity in abundance. But there has been no enhancement in the production capacity.”
The tremendous hike in the power tariff led to the mass movement earlier this May under the banner “Bidyut Mashul Bridhdhi Birodhi Gono Andolan” (People’s Movement Against Power Tariff Hike) . Their demands include:
- Withdrawal of the latest hike in power tariffs,
- Re-initiation of the process of Tariff Determination by WBERC and reduction of Power Tariffs in Kolkata and West Bengal.
- Restructuring of the WBERC and making the participation of consumer representatives and public hearings mandatory in decisions on tariff revisions.
- Breaking the monopoly of the CESC in power distribution to Kolkata, Howrah and adjoining areas.
- Making pro-people amendments to the Electricity Act 2003 to strengthen the ERCs, make them transparent and accountable; Withdrawal of the anti-people Electricity Amendment Bill 2014 which paves the way for more privatisation.