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Pakistan leads the way in the incidence of illegal abstraction of energy (theft of electricity in the legal lingo). Sadly, the situation after becoming better has once again reared its ugly head.

The current situation has been exacerbated by the failing writ of the government even in the so-called most compliant province of the Punjab. The PM is on record to have proclaimed that theft equals a stupendous Rs 600 billion each year.

The scribe, with nearly 50 years of hands-on experience, suggested that it could be around Rs 1 trillion or so – especially, so when theft is of many variations, while the generalist just considers managing bills through injuring the metering equipment or bye-passing the metes, as theft.

All of this is duly treated in the Electricity Act, 1910 and then through the Electricity Rules, 1937– though, both these documents have been amended many times and then have been superseded by the Nepra Act 1997; which experts consider to be most deficient.

Before any of the deficiencies are listed, it is important to list anti-theft efforts of the past – both semi-successful and not that perfect. However, one thing is clear to the effect that all of these were conducted from without, and none were undertaken from within. As the campaign over-seers and managers were basically non-professionals, the campaigns, as expected, faltered in very short time periods. In fact, sustenance of these campaigns over longer periods has always been the issue. Because of this, the next bout of illegal abstraction was always around the corner.

The longest of the campaigns started immediately at the end of 1998. This was steered by a huge force provided by the Pakistan Army staffed by two general officers, umpteen brigadiers, a plethora of officers and 42,000 troops.

Nearly all of the premises connected to Wapda mains were checked and soon the then max demand of 8500MW fell by a hefty 1000MW.

We did not know what to do with the surplus and when all of the 16 IPPs (set-up under the Power Policy of 1994) also came on bar, an effort was undertaken to export the ensuing surplus to India – incidentally, a non-starter.

Unfortunately, this surplus, against good advice, was never utilized to sustain industrial and agriculture growth in the country.

Coming back to this mega campaign, it was seen that all of sudden theft dropped at the sight of fully loaded and cocked automatic rifles – and those too managed by soldiers in battle fatigues. Those caught made up the who’s who of even the political elite.

The list included a lady politician of the Punjab – billed against her protestation for theft. She had only been charged for misusing the agriculture connection for domestic usage – a form of illegal abstraction.

So much was the thrust. However, even with the presence of troops, the campaign petered off after a short span and the illegalities once more crept into the sector.

As to why this campaign failed to have the required long-term effect is a question that has always begged an answer.

Actually, there was a serious disconnect between the soldier management, the rank and file of Wapda’s distribution staffing and also the population. The martial law in the country also did not help. In other words, this malice is deeply entrenched in the body-politic of our people.

Besides, we were facing a failing writ of this state in huge swaths of the country.

Continued compromised law and order situation, below par education and endemic cheating in exams, nepotism in shape of corrupt officialdom etc., all assure that no correction ever takes place in the power sector.

In other words, we live in a very gelled and connected world and thus any disconnect anywhere will not allow any effort to succeed in isolation.

Subsequently, many mini-campaigns were taken up with the most successful one conductive during 2009-10.

However, like always this could not be sustained over longer times, basically, because of abrupt change of guard – a regular feature in Pakistan and endemic of a generalist mind-set.

The major one was then taken up in 2014-15, with the FIA, IB and the provinces also making up the efforts.

Considering the DISCOs unable to conduct the same on their own, the Commissioners became the lead. Sadly, the thousands of the FIRs lodged then all still nowhere in process. The earlier disconnect was evident even then.

Thereafter, the last one taken up by the PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) government in 2023 also met the same fate.

Again, FIRs were lodged in thousands with the sad conclusion that we do not learn any lessons and repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Come March 2024, and the PM announced another campaign – once again to be led by the provincial officialdom – as if it is all good at the provincial level and that the Commissioners have done wonders in their areas of jurisdiction. And thus, once again the disconnect will be evident.

This time, however, another serious issue will have to be ameliorated. This relates to the 60,000 vacancies in the PSCEs (basically DISCOs) and that too at the operational level.

As primarily, these vacancies relate to line staff and meter readers, exacerbated with such vacancies at the supervisory level too, the going is bound to be very tough. And as always, other imperative services will suffer. The proposed anti-theft campaign is thus destined to be a short one or even a non-starter, to say the least.

Additionally, as the stewardship is proposed to be non-professional, the result too will leave much to desire. It is important to understand that stemming theft is highly technical and also intricate.

One has to refer to the earlier mapping of such incidences and in case it is not evident (in most cases), then detailed mapping has to be conducted.

Thereafter, prioritization of the effort would lead to maximization of the effort/results. Both these activities have to be jointly taken up in hand through necessary participation of the field and ancillary services (revenue side) functionaries.

The DISCOs recovery officers mostly CSDs, would oversee the above activity in full earnest.

Additionally, the CSDs would be required to prepare strategy and field plans for the campaigns well before time. Thereafter, would come the time to convene meetings with the provincial administration and police officials.

The discussion would firstly comprise of lessons learnt during the most recent campaign of three months ago – specially, the fact that no challans have been submitted in the courts since then.

However, the stewardship has to be with the Discos Chief Recovery Officers/CSDs or maximum being jointly held with the relevant commissioner.

As typically, each Disco makes up more than one Commissionerate, hence the stewardship at the Disco HQ would be held by the CSD and the SEs may hold the same with the relevant Commissioners outside the Discos HQs.

The actual campaign would then be started on scientific lines to achieve the most in the initial days of the campaign.

Various strategies have to be adopted – including the time-tested reverse ink spot strategy – mostly used in areas/towns where illegal abstraction is rife. It has to be remembered that any campaign that stalls at its start has no chance at all of ever succeeding. Herein lies the requirement for induction of the most experienced professionals from the Discos concerned to lead the campaign.

Besides, the strategies and induction of specific personnel, it too is important to employ necessary statistical methods, which will assist the campaign in focusing on areas with the most abstraction and the potential for netting the maximum recovery.

Detection billing is another facet to be considered because instances have been noticed in the past where heavy and un-substantiated detection billing has resulted in scuttling of the campaign. It is thus most important that the billing remains just. Then comes the interaction with police – specifically, the thanes etc. for lodging criminal cases against delinquents.

This is most important as mindless reference to the police spoils the whole effort. In other words, the criminal cases should be restricted to cases involving a specific amount alone. This step would assist in proper prosecution, unlike the earlier most recent campaign where not even one challan has as yet been submitted in the trial courts.

Necessary propagation of the campaign in the media – both print and electronic, has to be arranged concurrently with the activity in the field.

Coupled with it, there has to be a similar effort in the educational sphere. It is seen in the past that students (and not youth) act as a bulwark against theft – as such, the importance of garnering their support. This will be the final of the 12 steps needed to be undertaken for any successful anti-theft campaign to succeed.

In view of all of the above facts and especially the inordinate 60,000 or so vacancies in the DISCOs and other PSCEs, the upcoming campaign will be onerous unless conducted most diligently. It all would depend upon the particular DISCO’s Chief Recovery Officers/ CSDs and related staff, besides the fact that the services of the district administration or police should be at the disposal of the DISCOs and not vice versa.

It then has to be handled very deftly, specially, when any ham-fisted approach will be negative. Similarly, considering provision of AMI metering as a first or a prelude to any campaign is not proper.

Basically, DISCO should be able to record the outgoing units at all sub stations and then follow up sales etc.

AMI can off course follow in due course of time – but that too after adoption of necessary distribution engineering modules in the DISCOs.

In other words, AMI is a specialized system but depends upon a fairly good infrastructure. As such, for reaping full benefits of AMI, the presently decrepit infrastructure has to be updated at the earliest.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

Engr Tahir Basharat Cheema

The writer is B.E. (Elect), Dip. Pub. Admn, Dip. Bus. Admn., Cert. Statistical Sciences, M.B.A. and former MD PEPCO, former President I.E.E.E.P. Former Caretaker President I.E.E.E.P

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KU May 23, 2024 11:37am
Ask the farmers, they are now being offered affordable bills for the right bribe, which means a reduction from Rs. 60K per acre to Rs.10K. Despite complaints, no one is bothered, seems chaos is here.
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