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I have the power

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on January 08, 2018

Raid alert: As MD of Kanpur Electric Supply Company Limited, Ritu Maheshwari conducted raids on a regular basis to curb power theft   -  Courtesy: Ritu Maheshwari

The new collector of Ghaziabad comes with the distinction of having revived a debt-ridden electric utility

The new district magistrate of Ghaziabad — among the slew of transfers in the Uttar Pradesh government last month — is difficult to track down. The little breathing space Ritu Maheshwari gets between meetings and team briefings is devoted to her son’s preparations for school exams. That this officer’s days are long and busy is nothing new, given that in her previous stint she was feted for successfully ushering in power distribution reforms in a country weighed down by an average annual loss of $16.2 billion due to power theft.

Maheshwari joined the civil services in 2003 after completing a degree in electrical engineering at Punjab Engineering College. She had her first major breakthrough in 2011, when she was posted as the managing director of Kanpur Electric Supply Company Limited (KESCO). The debt-ridden utility had run up losses of nearly 30 per cent, brought about by distribution losses, thefts, and tampering of meters. All that was about to change soon.

“I had just returned from maternity leave and had expected an easier posting, but when I got this (KESCO) instead, many of my peers advised me against taking it up. But I decided to go ahead. After I joined, I was told the company would soon be disinvested and I needn’t take on too much pressure. But I decided that it was still possible to turn this company around, and I worked on it. I wouldn’t say it was a complete makeover, but we made some headway,” Maheshwari says during a telephonic interview.

By the time she left KESCO, the losses had almost halved. During her 11-month stewardship, she replaced nearly one-third, or 1.6 lakh, of the mechanical meters with smart ones. She credits the turnover not to any big moves, but rather small actions instead. “We went on regular raids. The office staff was made to understand that it wasn’t okay to sit idle and turn a blind eye to instances of power theft.”

Nearly 8.4 million of UP’s 29 million households have non-metered power supply, while another 11.2 million have no electricity, according to a Bloomberg report. Distribution companies do not want to upgrade grids without recovering current losses. Recently, a tender was floated for the purchase of five million smart meters for UP and Haryana. The public-sector Energy Efficiency Services Ltd, which aims to halve distribution losses to 15 per cent across India by 2019, was in charge of the international bidding process. Maheshwari was heading this project until July 2017.

She believes that technology is the best defence against power theft — if the systems are seamless, and the processes automated, accountability will increase and it will become that much harder to steal. “I feel that while there were checks against power theft earlier too, the automatic meters made a world of difference by bringing in transparency,” she says.

A reduction of even one per cent in distribution loss translates into a profit of $10 billion for the company, so a difference of 15 per cent was nothing short of extraordinary. Maheshwari was also involved in the development of Urja Mitra, an app that gives real-time information on power supply across the country. After a successful trial run in Kanpur, it was rolled out countrywide in April 2017.

“After I got involved, many power companies are putting up their audited sheets on a three-month basis, where the public can find out how much power has been consumed, and the losses incurred by the companies,” she says. As the distribution losses fell, the company was able to improve supply too.

Such drastic reforms, unsurprisingly, were met with opposition initially. Consumers in Kanpur protested when forced to take up legitimate connections and fall under the revenue net. The powers-that-be weren’t pleased either. “I did face resistance from the political milieu, and had to pull up employees who had become corrupt. Some took money to tip off violators ahead of raids against power theft... they would remove the illegal power hooks before the team arrived. We countered this with surprise raids.”

In 2014, Maheshwari’s work inspired filmmakers Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa to produce a documentary titled Katiabaaz (Powerless), focusing on the power situation in Kanpur, a seat for leather industries, which require heavy-duty electricity.

After Kanpur, and stints as the district magistrate of JP Nagar, Ghazipur, Pilibhit and Shahjahanpur, Maheshwari wants to focus on fighting pollution control in her current posting at Ghaziabad.

So, how did she tackle the bullies and naysayers at work?

“My degree has stood me well all this time. There have been times where I’ve had to tackle patriarchal attitudes at work, but people realise that I have good knowledge of this [power] sector, and it isn’t easy to hoodwink me. I think, eventually, anyone trying to do some good work is given the space to do so.”

Published on October 06, 2017

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