Rising power cuts halt lives in Kashmir



Power lines
Clutter of power lines in Habakadal area of Srinagar. Photograph by Asif Hamid Sheikh for The Kashmir Walla

On the day before his Islamic studies exam last week, Tamhid Andrabi’s home was supplied electricity for less than two hours. The 23-year-old student, in the final semester of his bachelor’s course in arts from Pulwama Degree College, is a resident of Pakherpora in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, where — as in towns and villages across the Valley — winter brings a drop in the availability of power.

Connectivity is lost if he fails to charge his phone in the few hours that his village gets electricity. “Our family has installed solar panels on the roof, but they can’t get fully charged when it’s cloudy,” he says. In such times, Mr. Andrabi finds rescue in candlelight.

Snow is partly to blame, too. “We had cut the branches of trees close to the electric wires to prevent them from falling over during snowstorms,” says Aijaz Ahmad Dar, chief engineer of distribution at the Jammu and Kashmir Power Distribution Department (PDD). “But snow fell in November when trees had shed their leaves. So even the ones that were a little farther from the wires also fell.”

After the parliament scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional special status in August 2019, the department was not able to promptly fix the snags in supply due to partial communication blockade that still continues.

While the power cuts triggered by snowfall are not predictable, compared to previous years, officially scheduled power cuts have also risen this winter. In the winter of 2017-18, for instance, metered areas in Kashmir faced a schedule of three hours of power cuts on average in a day — half of what is the case today.

Area

Scheduled daily power cuts

Srinagar: metered areas

six hours

Srinagar: unmetered areas

nine hours

Districts: metered areas

eight hours

Districts: unmetered areas

ten-eleven hours

As temperatures hover around freezing points, the use of indoor heating appliances boosts the demand for electricity. In the absence of new investment, the worn-out electricity infrastructure is failing to keep up. The Valley’s transmission capacity is 1,300 megawatts. If the supply hours rise, “our requirement will reach 1,600-1,700 megawatts,” Mr. Dar says.

Losses of the power department have shot up over the past few years, crippling its ability to funnel cash for refurbishing the electricity system. In the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K), about 48.38 per cent of all electricity supplied by the department is not accounted for, the highest for any state or union territory in the country, according to data compiled under Ujjwal Discom Assurance Yojana, a scheme run by the central government.

The lack of accounting, as per Mr. Dar, stems from about 60 per cent of the total 9.85 lakh connections in the Valley that are unmetered. Consumers using unmetered connections pay a flat rate, but can use up more electricity than what their agreement with the department specifies. With the arrival of winter, as these customers switch on their heating appliances, the load on the system rises, and the department is forced to cut power supply, Mr. Dar says — after all, “this is a form of power theft.” The department cannot even be certain of exactly how much electricity unmetered connections are consuming, let alone try to control it in any significant way except by turning off entire neighbourhoods’ supply.

Places with unmetered connections — Srinagar’s downtown area and nearly all of Kashmir’s countryside — face more power cuts and voltage fluctuations. Less well-off than the city neighbourhoods that have metered connections, customers in these areas have become, in effect, second-class customers for the department.

“Electric kettles and even torches break down in winters due to voltage fluctuations,” says Abdul Hamid Hakak, 54, who runs an electrical appliance repair store in downtown Srinagar. “We aren’t able to charge invertors because of the low voltage supply.”

The department, meanwhile, is caught in a spiral. Installing meters in unmetered areas — to improve the accounting for power consumption — is an additional investment, which the department is too cash-strapped and debt-laden to undertake. As a result, losses continue to rise as power consumption grows: between March 2016 and March 2019, the department added 3.7 lakh connections.

The central government has allotted funds for installation of six lakh new meters, one lakh of which will be “smart meters” that don’t require man power to keep an account of the readings.

The target is to install one lakh of the old-school meters this year, and complete the installation of all the smart meters by 2021, Mr. Dar says.

“[In winters] people need to run heating appliances. They won’t let the government install meters in their homes,” says a resident of downtown Srinagar, who doesn’t wish to be named. “We will instead prefer to manage in the few hours we get electricity.”

Targets, however, are easily overrun in the Valley, which is known for political instability and ill-governance. In Kashmir, people don’t have useful flyovers but infamous ones; some of which might cross the deadline by more than a decade.

Kuwar Singh is a Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla.

The story appeared in our 13-19 January 2020 print edition.


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