Katiyabaaz – the grid thief of Kanpur

Katiyabaaz Loha Singh in a still from the film
Katiyabaaz Loha Singh in a still from the film

By SHIVAM VIJ: A new documentary film, Katiyabaaz, presents a problem that I’ve been struggling with. Although the film is set in Kanpur, it’s a problem that faces many parts of South Asia. The film-makers, Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar, obstinately refuse to offer possible solutions. With catchy lyrics and music, the film celebrates Kanpur, its people, and this messed-up system. It’s a snapshot of who we are. It’s when you think about the film that it disturbs you.

The film’s anti-hero is a thief — Loha Singh helps a lot of people steal electricity in Kanpur. He connects the illegal wire that is known in north India as katiya. Katiya is the sort of simple solution to life’s problems that South Asians feel very smart about. It’s an example of jugaad, the shortcut to problem solving that’s now integral to pop management theories.

As Loha Singh goes about connecting katiyas, the Kanpur Electricity Supply Corporation (KESCO) struggles with plans to make people pay for the electricity they use. KESCO officials go with police parties to raid houses, check meters, threaten police cases, collect fines and remove katiyas. But the heroic task is hampered, if not by the corruption of KESCO officials then by the public, which threatens them with violence. There was even a case that a policeman was burnt alive by the people. If the Kanpur administration was to seriously attempt to make people pay for electricity, there would be riots that would exceed the scale of the Hindu-Muslim violence Kanpur has seen rather often.

Loha Singh says in the film that KESCO only goes after the poor who steal relatively little electricity. A local politician named Irfan Solanki takes on the KESCO chief saying that if KESCO cannot guarantee uninterrupted power supply, it has no right to ask the people to pay for the meagre electricity they do get. KESCO says that it cannot provide 24/7 power supply if people won’t pay for it. As it is, the electricity rates are subsidised. As the film takes us through this cat-and-mouse game, elections arrive. Electricity is an issue in every politician’s speech in the film, including one by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Irfan Solanki wins the election and the KESCO chief who was trying to reform the situation is given a “punishment posting” elsewhere.

The people of Kanpur, rich and poor, are so used to free electricity they think it’s their birthright. There are people who do most of their cooking on a hotplate because the cooking gas cylinder isn’t free (yet). This is the story of not just Kanpur or Uttar Pradesh but many parts of India. In 2011, the Indian power sector’s transmission and distribution losses were 24 per cent. If these consumers could be made to pay up, the government would have more money to spend on power generation.

Loha Singh is right that they don’t go after the rich: big culprits in electricity theft are industries, which, of course, fill the pockets of politicians. One industrial unit, when told that its free electricity party was over, shut down. Its costs were no longer competitive.

If the party in power goes after everyone who steals electricity, the opposition will win sympathy and votes. Instead of leading the way to enlightenment, leaders lead the people to doom — which makes you wonder about democracy. Oops, I didn’t say that. Political parties have found a political opportunity in electricity shortfall. Which place will have more load-shedding than others depends on whom its voters voted for in the last election. The film-makers tell me that it was only in the 1990s, as political competition between parties increased, that a new electricity mafia rose and offered people the chance to get electricity without paying for it.

Threatening people and forcing them to pay up is not going to work. The state should, instead, think of rewarding them for paying up: and the reward can only be uninterrupted supply. Electricity theft is only the second reason why India is power deficient. The main reason is the government’s own inability to efficiently use India’s coal reserves, not to speak of other means of electricity generation. If the state gets its act together, the people might follow. Or not!

(First published in The Express Tribune.)

5 thoughts on “Katiyabaaz – the grid thief of Kanpur”

  1. Efficiently use coal reserves? Scary because those reserves are mostly in Jharkhand, Orissa and Chattisgarh. Pretty unkafilasque. Or not!

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  2. If the people of Kanpur or Uttar Pradesh or for that matter any place are dishonest, Katiyabaaz will have a clientale. The root is the honesty level of the people. Nothing can or will work if a social transformation is not carried out that eradicates violence, dishonesty etc. from a large majority of the populace. All other solutions are useless in the long term. Leaders who encourage hedonistic tendencies must not get power. Leftists will say the rich are looting and the rightists will say the poor are looting. In reality both might be looting, each saying “Pehle Aap” when it comes to paying what it costs. Our governments’ “Subsidies and Doles” philosophy creates laggards, hangers on and unproductive persons. The identity and Entitlement politics take priority over ” Duties and Obligations’ politics. Everybody quotes his rights; none quotes obligations in return. Such a society is bound to suffer in shortages of every kind, leave alone electricity ! Issue is more social than political.

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  3. Public attitude is not the only reason behind all this! I come from Kanpur and Katiyas have been a part and parcel of everyone’s life there. And you know what, most, most katiyas I have seen around me were not coz someone wanted to steal electricity (its not like people dont steal electricity), but were put up coz the poor transmission infrastructure used to fail so much!!! Ur home line will get ripped, or the one face your house is connected to will be lost.. N these things wont get ratified for days!! Imagine you as if get only 10-14 hours of electricity, in that you have to run business, schools, colleges, kids have to study, etc.etc. What will you do, you will put up a katiya to the next pole, where electricity is available..

    Well, you know I dont even blame the people of the city who used to steal electricity.. Kanpur was North India’s most industrialized city, the largest in the belt and biggest revenue churner for the state. For years it has filled the state coffers only to see them being spent in Lucknow, Safai, Amethi, Rae Barielly, Agra, Noida.. People steal electricity coz they might not have a lot of money to pay.. they don’t have money to pay coz of reduced employment opportunities in the city and reduced business volumes, and that is there because there is no electricity, no infrastructure, so businesses shut down or moved.

    I will give you an example, a retail store which opens for 12 hours a day, gets electricity only for 6 hours. For the remaining 6 hours, he runs a diesel generator paying 15 rs. a unit for electricity to run his business. He ends up spending major part of his profits on diesel only.. He can question, why shall I pay the government for the 6 hour electricity grace, I am already spending more on electricity than I should have..

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