Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

How politicians give power to the people

A new research underscores the nexus between power companies and politicians

New Delhi: With elections done in five states, newly elected members of legislative assembly (MLAs) will now take office and prepare to complete the second part of the electoral process: rewarding their constituents.

In India, this political patronage takes many forms, including, as new research reveals, through informal subsidies for electricity provision.

In a new research paper, Meera Mahadevan of the University of Michigan, shows how politicians in West Bengal illicitly subsidized their constituents by manipulating their electricity bills.

Using satellite nighttime light density data, she finds that in regions that voted for the winning party there is an increase in electricity consumption.

However, analysing confidential bill payment data from 76 million consumers, she finds that these same regions have lower levels of billed electricity.

She suggests that politicians in these areas engaged in patronage by underreporting electricity, even as these constituents consumed more power. She estimates the magnitude of under-reporting to be more than 40% of billed consumption.

She shows that this under-reporting happens through manipulated household electricity meter readings.

Newly elected MLAs influence the billing inspectors responsible for capturing electricity meter data, to assign lower values for households in their constituencies. For instance, the author finds that a disproportionate number of bills report consumption values in multiples of 10 which are unnatural values for electricity consumption, and suggest data manipulation.

In addition to under-reporting, she suggests MLAs also discouraged utilities to take action against households engaged in electricity theft in their constituencies.

All this patronage, ultimately, costs the state power utility around 410 crore a year, she estimates. Even after adjusting for the gains to the consumers who pay less for electricity, the overall loss would be enough to power 3.7 million households for five years.

Mahadevan concludes that regulations such as the Electricity Act of 2003—which was established for electricity regulators to help separate politics and service provision—may not achieve the desired outcomes in the face of poor auditing and enforcement.

Mahdevan’s research appears to corroborate previous research papers on the nexus between power and politics.

A 2014 research paper by the political scientists Brian Min and Miriam Golden had shown how electricity line losses tended to spike up just ahead of state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, as political parties deliberately redirected electricity to unregistered users.

ALSO READ | The price of power: Costs of political corruption in Indian electricity

Close