Power play and a fight to switch a switch

Defamation cases, threatening calls, late-night work and accusations of being against power utility Reliance Infrastructure. Sandeep Ohri, an ordinary citizen, went through all this—and more—to ensure that the electricity distribution monopoly in Mumbai was broken... with lots of support from many activists and NGOs.

Any consumer who has switched over from his Reliance Infrastructure Ltd (RelInfra) connection to Tata Power Co Ltd (TP) will know, or at least should know, Sandeep Ohri. His battle for consumers to posses the right to switch service providers began three years ago and fructified recently with him being the first customer to make the actual switch.

Like many other consumers who were part of this battle, Mr Ohri’s fight was originally against high and unreasonable power tariffs. The struggle has now achieved a significant milestone with customers having the power to select a power supplier of their choice. Breaking the electricity distribution monopoly, in what was formerly a public sector domain, was no easy task. We bring you a blow-by-blow account.

A sharp spike in his own electricity bill was, predictably enough, the starting point for Mr Ohri. “One fine day in 2006, the electricity bill at one of our godowns shot up from Rs200 to Rs10,800. I was really shocked, since there was no activity going on at that place. The place was just utilised as a godown and only 14 units were consumed,” said Mr Ohri. In some ways, he is now glad that he was a victim. “It was only after I received a high bill, that I started understanding the issue and have been able to demystify the electricity sector for consumers,” added Mr Ohri.

He started by writing letters to everyone who had any authority—among the people he approached were the chief minister, the power minister and even the prime minister. Only one person responded. It was Rakshpal Abrol, president of an NGO called Bharatiya Udhami Avam Upbhogata Sangh. Mr Abrol had been working actively for this cause for several years and provided insights into the issue. Mr Ohri also began to understand the legal issues and simultaneously set up Bijlee, an online Yahoo group to demystify the power scenario for the average consumer.

“I started reading up on the legal issues involved. I became half an advocate myself, going to court and arguing because no lawyer wanted to represent us. One also cannot afford to pay lawyers to fight such battles. We started participating in MERC (Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission) hearings, raising objections and making presentations on behalf of consumers. We held public meetings and tried to educate people on the issue,” says Mr Ohri about the process his group adopted.

Finally, the activists were able to turn up the heat by persuading around 150 people to attend MERC hearings instead of the six or seven who were attending such meetings earlier. What proved to be a major breakthrough was the realisation that TP had a license to supply power all over Mumbai. “We came to know that MERC had earlier stopped TP from supplying to retail consumers, due to objections from RelInfra. So TP took up the case with MERC, then it went to the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity (ATE) and then to the Supreme Court. Finally, last year, the Supreme Court said that TP had a license to supply electricity all over Mumbai—and the monopoly was broken. However, there was no methodology in place (for consumer switchover) so another year was wasted behind that,” added Mr Ohri.

Though there was an SC order in place, TP was still not supplying power to Mumbai as there was no specific switchover policy from RelInfra. “I wrote to MERC asking them to call a hearing, to work out the policy,” said Mr Ohri.

In June 2009, MERC had issued an order allowing TP to supply electricity to any RelInfra consumer who wished to switch services. Under section 43 (1) of the Electricity Act 2003, the consumers in some areas fulfilling the eligibility conditions, have the opportunity to choose their power supplier and the chosen company has to provide electricity within 30 days. But plenty of hurdles had to be overcome before the actual switchover could take place. Once again, Mr Ohri led the way. His switchover process was the test case.

“After MERC’s order allowing the switchover, I sent a letter to RelInfra, stating that I did not want their connection. I told them to disconnect the connection, as I had already applied for a new connection with TP; I was supposed to get a new connection within 30 days. However, RelInfra gave me all kinds of excuses, saying that the switchover procedure had still not been established. TP gave me the meter within the stipulated 30-day period. I asked RelInfra to remove its meter, and even offered to remove it myself. RelInfra said if I did so, it would register a case against me for tampering with the meter,” said Mr Ohri.

This started another battle before MERC to prescribe the switchover procedure. Finally an order was passed in October 2009 outlining the exact procedure for the switchover. Following this, Mr Ohri was given a switchover date, which was revised four times. Finally, he was among the first consumers to switch over from RelInfra to TP in November 2009.

“I had around eight officers turning up for the switchover (process); they were from RelInfra as well as TP. They took a joint meter reading, taught each other on how to read their respective meters and then shook hands,” said Mr Ohri.

On being asked if the actual switchover date was his day of triumph, Mr Ohri said, “The most important milestone for me is that the petition I had filed on petitiononline.com is today a reality.”

In 2007, Mr Ohri had filed a petition on a website, www.petitiononline.com which called for breaking the monopoly in the electricity sector. “At that time, such a petition was unheard of and I wanted the monopoly to be broken. I am happy it has happened,” said Mr Ohri.

Looking back on his struggle, Mr Ohri said that at times, he was close to losing his motivation. But somebody had to fight the battle. “My driver received a monthly bill of Rs800, for using a tube-light and a ceiling fan,” said Mr Ohri. He wanted to carry on his fight for such hapless individuals with a view on his larger social responsibilities.

Speaking of the worst nightmare he has faced in this struggle, Mr Ohri said, “Through an RTI (Right to Information) application, we found that RelInfra had no license from MERC for power distribution in Mumbai. The license was in the name of erstwhile power utility Bombay Suburban Electricity Supply (BSES). I wrote about this (fact) on my blog. RelInfra served me with a five-page notice alleging defamation. I had no clue this could happen and then after some online research, I found out that you could be jailed for defamation charges,” recalled Mr Ohri. He also received a couple of threatening calls, which could not be traced to any entity.

At present, there are three electricity suppliers in Mumbai. RelInfra (erstwhile Reliance Energy), which bought BSES, supplies electricity to more than half the city. Tata Power supplies electricity to limited areas as well as to some bulk consumers while Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Co Ltd (MahaDiscom) provides electricity to a few extended suburbs.

After all these ups and downs, Mr Ohri has won himself and many more consumers in the city the right to choose their power supply provider. However, he still continues with his good work in this arena.

Last week, Mr Ohri had spent a couple of hours providing TP’s Information Technology team a few tips on how to make their site more user-friendly for customers wanting to switch over.

Various NGOs and politicians have approached Mr Ohri to help him in his cause, but he has steered clear of any such associations. “What can I do if an NGO changes its agenda later? Politicians have also asked me to share data (about the customers wanting to switch over) but I have told them that all the information is available in the public domain. I have refused to join them,” said Mr Ohri.
In his struggle, Mr Ohri has often been dubbed a TP supporter. Refuting this allegation, he told Moneylife, “I do not favour either RelInfra or TP. I am with the consumer.”

Next on his agenda is to oppose the ‘wheeling’ charges that RelInfra is charging its customers for switching over to TP. “My major concern is RelInfra’s move to demerge the (power distribution) business, (relegating it) to a smaller subsidiary named Reliance Energy Ltd, without transferring adequate assets. My concern is that customers have already paid for the entire (RelInfra) infrastructure that has been set up. Second, I believe we don’t have to pay the wheeling charges and for the (cost of the) meter, since RelInfra has already recovered it from us (erstwhile RelInfra customers) from its tariff,” said Mr Ohri.

He concluded on a lighter note, describing how he wished to retain the old RelInfra meter at the time of the switchover. “I was really tempted to retain the meter, considering that I had already paid for it,” said Mr Ohri.
–Amritha Pillay

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    TV guide channel gets ready to air on DTH platform

    ‘What’s on India’, a TV guide channel, will be available to viewers on some DTH services and cables.

    Television guidance channel ‘What’s on India’ is planning to tie up with direct-to-home (DTH) services providers Airtel Digital, Tata Sky and Dish TV as well as with some local cable operators said a senior official. Currently, users of Hathway’s set-top box can view the channel which acts as a programme surfing guide for about 50 different channels available in the country.

    “During December, we will be tying up with most of the DTH service providers and channels as part of our expansion strategy,” said Atul Phadnis, founder-promoter and chief executive of What’s On India Media Pvt Ltd.

    There is an in-built electronic programme guide (EPG) application available on many of the DTH set top boxes. However, viewers need to surf through it channel-by-channel. What’s on India would provide the channel guide segregated into different categories like, news, films, general entertainment and sports. It will also provide suggestions to the viewer on the best programme or show to watch at a particular time.

    Currently, What’s on India provides programme details for about 50 different channels, out of around 350 channels currently being aired in the country. It is planning to increase its channel coverage by adding 75-80 channels and aims to reach about 20 million homes by the first quarter of 2010. “It took me two years to launch this channel. The ministry of information and broadcasting granted us the license early November this year and we commenced our operation by end of November,” said Mr Phadnis.

    Before launching the TV guidance channel, the company conducted surveys with a sample size of 2,500 customers from cities including Lucknow, Chandigarh and Allahabad to asses the taste of the viewers. The channel has an analyst team of more than 10 people which decides on what category of the content should be telecasted based on the best content running at that particular time. For example, if the analyst team thinks that the afternoon is best suited for dramas and morning is the best time to telecast religious content, it will select the best content among these two categories and telecast it as the best content available at a particular time slot.
    — Pallabika Ganguly

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    Govt says NTPC deal can't be equated with private accord

    The Supreme Court had sought a response after Anil Ambani-led RNRL had consented to the government being made a party to the dispute

    The Indian government on Wednesday filed its affidavit in the Supreme Court on the ongoing gas row between the Ambani brothers saying that the arrangement for State-run NTPC Ltd cannot be equated with any agreement between Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) and Reliance Natural Resources Ltd (RNRL), reports PTI.

    The apex court had sought the response after Anil Ambani-led RNRL had consented to the government being made a party to the dispute. RNRL contended that it was entitled to receive the gas at $2.34 per unit from Mukesh Ambani group company RIL which had entered into an arrangement for supplying gas to NTPC at that rate.

    "The rights and obligation of NTPC and RIL cannot be regarded as similar in status to the private arrangement as in the case of RIL and RNRL because NTPC is not only a State-run unit but the process involved for price determination in the case of NTPC gas was by international competitive bidding," the government said in the affidavit.

    However, the government said the price offered by the contractor to NTPC will require scrutiny and approval of the government under the production sharing contract (PSC).

    "The Central government will take an appropriate decision in the case of NTPC as and when a need arises. Such a decision based on public interest, if in favour of NTPC cannot be termed as discriminatory or arbitrary," the affidavit placed before a bench headed by chief justice KG Balakrishnan said.

    The government said that a decision in respect of NTPC will be taken when either its rights get established in the pending suit with RIL in the Bombay High Court or if overriding public interest warrants any government intervention.

    The decision taken by the empowered group of ministers (EGoM) at its meeting held on 12 September 2007, 28th May and 23 October 2008 additionally reflects that it has not excluded the entitlement of NTPC for consideration.

    "It may be pointed out that since there exists an ongoing suit between NTPC and RIL the decisions of the Central government were stated to be without prejudice to the rights of NTPC," the affidavit said.

    It said any request of NTPC for supply of gas will be considered by the government in the light of the relevant provisions of the PSC.

    Further, the affidavit said the Government has on the one hand left NTPC to establish its right in the pending suit in the High Court, and on the other hand it has not foreclosed any options available under PSC. However, such a decision would be taken by a competent authority keeping in view the charter of the State-run unit and other relevant circumstances having a bearing on public interest.

    The government clarified that the affidavit filed on 13 January 2009 before the High court was not intended to convey that the government has rejected the case of NTPC or that it has chosen to signify any implied termination of the State-run unit's rights.

    The Ambani brothers are engaged in a high-voltage bitter legal battle over the supply and price of gas from the KG basin. While RNRL is seeking gas at a committed price of $2.34 per unit, RIL says it cannot honour the commitment made in the family agreement due to the government's pricing and gas policy.
    -Yogesh Sapkale

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