August Issue 2009
The Power Thieves
Just off the National Highway in Bin Qasim Town, there is a place that the eye can never miss. A jungle of wires runs atop bamboo sticks in an open ground. Hooked onto the electricity transmission lines of the KESC at one end, the network criss-crosses its way into the tattered houses of Shah Latif town.
This blatant theft of electricity has been an ongoing problem since people settled in this town 30 years ago, and all past attempts to remove the wires have been thwarted by blockades of the crucial highway.
However, elected representatives from the area claim that the hundreds of homes are not the only culprits; private contractors who arrange the connections have assumed the role of power suppliers. They collect a fee from residents and bribe KESC officials to stay out of their way.
Jan-e-Alam Jamote, the nazim of Bin Qasim Town, says that people do pay for the electricity; however, none of this revenue makes it to the KESC. “These connections exist because of the officials who come to check electricity theft,” says Jamote, implying that it is these officials who receive monthly payments.
Shah Latif Town is a project of the Malir Development Authority (MDA), and its residents were promised all basic utilities. However, the cash-strapped KESC refused to bear the cost of the wires, poles, transformers and electricity meters, when the MDA handed over the plots, Jamote reveals. “Now how can residents be expected to pay for all this?”
But Shah Latif town is not the only place where electricity theft is rampant. In most congested neighbourhoods of Karachi, such as the Lines Area, Orangi and Surjani Town, this system of stealing electricity is common.
The myopic governments who managed the KESC until late 2005 did not account for the rapid increase in population. All through the 1980s and ’90s, little money was invested in expanding the transmission and distribution (T&D) system of the power utility. As new houses popped up in areas like Orangi, people conveniently resorted to illegal connections. The T&D losses, including those from theft, were 17% of the company’s revenues in 1985-86. They jumped to 40% in 2001-02.
G.R. Bhatti, KESC’s former general manager of distribution, was part of the army-controlled management that undertook anti-theft operations following the military takeover in May 1999.
“It was never easy for the army,” he recalled in an interview with Newsline. “I had cut off all the connections in Shah Latif Town myself, but Brigadier Sadozai had to send his major to ensure they were put in place again, because there was an uproar.”
The KESC has attempted to stop the theft in other places as well. The unconcealed copper wires of the KESC make it easy for anyone to hook up kundas, so the authorities decided to use hard plastic coating to cover the power lines in parts of Surjani Town. But this proved to be a futile exercise.
“We didn’t realise that people could be so smart. They started heating the iron hooks off the kundas so that they easily melted through the plastic coating and stuck to the copper. It was a perfect technique,” explains Bhatti.
Next, the KESC installed electricity-export meters at the pole-mounted transformers (PMTs) from where power is distributed to a particular building or houses lining a street. Since the PMT meters record all the units of electricity sent out, the idea was to match their readings with that of the homes and find the culprit.
However this method did not prove effective either; instead, it became a money-minting racket for the meter readers. Bhatti proposes that committees of residents should be formed. “Not everyone steals,” he explains. The committees could work as watchdogs in their localities. “Psychological pressure could work when residents are gathered and told that one of them is stealing. People have never formed committees before, but I think it will work.”
Orangi was a different case altogether. Televisions, refrigerators and other appliances were all run on illegal connections. The only way to stop electricity theft there was to replace copper wires with specially insulated cables. Thus, a pilot project was launched in Salimabad and other nearby localities. Twenty-one kilometres of XLP-insulated cable, which cannot be cut with a knife, was laid. “The project was a success. In one year, the billing increased by 300%,” says Bhatti. However, the project could never be launched on a full scale, as the government was hoping to privatise KESC and, hence, did not release the requisite funds.
Surprisingly, it was not the residential areas where electricity theft was the highest. Big factories in industrial estates were running heavy equipment, like boilers, on stolen electricity. “In terms of quantity, that was where most of the theft occurred,” Bhatti says, adding that the army-led management was, to a large extent, successful in sweeping off illegal connections from industries.
Additionally, the influence of political groups in places like Lines Area prevents the KESC from getting rid of kundas. It is common for KESC staff to be harassed and beaten up by angry residents. “You can cut illegal connections just once. Going there the next time means being thrashed by a wild mob,” says Sarfaraz Ahmed, who is responsible for the billing in Saddar Town. Working in such conditions can be extremely difficult, especially when long hours of power breakdowns have turned people against the KESC. According to him, the KESC never supports the staff that is responsible for checking theft, and, often, phone calls made in distress to supervisors are not answered. Dealing with political activists is even the more difficult, explains Ahmed. Officials like him have to use their own political connections. “I have learnt to deal with the situation by using foul language and seeking the assistance of influential contacts. However, that does not always guarantee safety.” The hike in the power tariff, as well as the rising price of fuel in the last four years, has made his job even harder. “There has been a substantial increase in theft since the tariff went up.”
The apartment buildings based along Rashid Minhas Road in Gulshan-e-Iqbal are just one example of this rising trend. Shakeel Ahmed (name changed), a resident in the area, switches off a button in his apartment immediately after waking up every morning and the electricity meter starts running again. The system is common these days. You can switch on a button to stop the meter dial from working for as long as one wants. “The KESC inspectors normally come to check in the mornings. So I make sure it is back on again at 7 a.m.,” says Ahmed. He has a ‘valid’ reason to steal, he believes. His father, a bank manager, lost his job a few years back. Working for an insurance company as a surveyor does not help meet the expenses. “I have two younger brothers to take care of, and every month there is an increase in my bill,” he laments.
Experts say the rickety T&D system and inefficient power plants of KESC are partly to be blamed for the inflated bills. Ainul Abedin, who runs an engineering consultancy, says KESC’s power plants run at less than 35% efficiency, which adds to the power production costs. “This means that out of 100 cubic feet of gas pumped in, only 35% is converted into electricity. The rest evaporates.” According to international standards, KESC’s power plants must have 50% efficiency. In addition, the utility’s existing steam power plants are obsolete. A combined-cycle design, which recovers the heat to produce more steam for the turbines, is being used in energy-efficient economies. “We are suffering the consequences of our stupidities over the past few years. If all these power plants were of the combined-cycle design, like Kot Addu, we would have survived the serious energy crisis at this time,” argues Ainul Abedin.
However, Abedin insists that restructuring the current power plants will only help to a certain degree, because he firmly believes that it is theft that is causing the financial haemorrhage of KESC. “Setting up efficient power plants will take some time, but, for now, our air-conditioning-hungry section of society must be made to pay for the power they gleefully steal. And this must be done now,” he firmly states.