‘No’ To Tariff Hike

Challenging CESC

Biswajit Roy

The Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC), once a British blue chip and now controlled by Sanjiv Goenka-led RPG group, enjoys a monopoly in the city and much of the surrounding districts in pwer generation and distribution business while the state-run WBSEDCL supplies power to rest of rural Bengal.

By dint of CESC fiefdom in Kolkata and suburbs, the regional corporate behemoth has expanded its empire in other sectors including retail, real estate, power generation, mining and plantation. A supermall has come up on the premises of CESC Central Stores in Beckbagan area of South-Central Calcutta. After acquiring controlling stake in CESC the Goenkas first decided to dismantle Central Stores and build a supermall there. The power supply company's increasing denial of consumer rights and refusal to redress the grievances over arbitrary tariff hike, inflated billing and other malpractices runs parallel to its growing clouts with the successive Left Front and TMC regimes. Neither the CPM nor TMC, or for that matter, the two biggest national parties, Congress and BJP have ever ticked the CESC for its lack of public transparency and accountability in a business that bears the official tag of 'essential services'.

So long as London share-holders used to exercise their control through Indian executives, they remained satisfied with 8 percent reasonable return. But for the Goenkas the sky is the limit. They are trying to make the company sick by extracting 'unreasonable return' and converting prime location electrical installations into real estates.

The so-called autonomous state electricity tariff regulatory commission run by pliant retired technocrats has become handy, both for the ailing politicians and corporate-state honchos to deflect the public ire over exorbitant tariff hike and demand for genuine public hearing as well as to shield themselves against the complaints of hanky-panky deals.

Delhi already witnessed the growing public unrest against the increasing corporate control in energy and allied sectors and resultant fleecing of the power consumers by the private supply companies. As the latter enjoyed protection from successive governments and the capital's political establishment across the party divide, the then greenhorns of Aaam Admi Party and its earlier NGO avatars took up the consumer's cause. A popular agitation was born that ignited the hopes for unsettling the political-corporate status quo. The AAP's phenomenal growth in Delhi was attributed much to its agitation against the hike of power tariffs.

The Delhi example has apparently inspired some motley groups of young activists in Kolkata who are critical of both CPM and TMC governments. The Mass Movement against Power Tariff Hike, a forum of student-youth activists that includes Left Collective of former CPM- SFI workers as well as members of Mazdur Kranti Parisad, Chatro Andolon Prastuti and other radical left groups, has begun its agitation in late May.

After dharnas and rallies since May, the forum has been holding indefinite hunger strike to press for its six demands since September. The TMC government, which calls itself as the epitome of Paribartan or political change after 34 years of Left Front rule and swears by Ma-Mati-Manush (motherland and its people), has only tried to suppress the movement first by denying the basic democratic right to protest in any form and then refusing to address the merits of the demands.

Now as chief minister Mamata Banerjee has not bothered to respond to the letter from the Forum even after 15 days of hunger strike by its eight members since 5 September. Aged between 57 to 22, medical condition of the fasting activists- Biplab Bhattacharya. Prosenjit Bose, Payel Choudhury, Duhita Biswas, Avash Munshi, Swapan Das, Juni Ghosh and Sayan Banerjee - is deteriorating fast. Two of them have been sent to hospital because of critical condition. But it has not moved the ruler.

Six Demands
H    Immediately repeal the enhanced electricity tariff for 2014-15 in CESC and WBSEDCL areas.
H    Reorganize West Bengal Electricity Regulatory Commission and make the public hearing and participation of consumer representatives in fixing the power tariff mandatory.
H    End the CESC monopoly in power supply in Kolkata, Howrah and surrounding areas.
H    Immediately repeal the anti-people Electricity Amendment Bill 2014.
H    Increase generation of solar energy and other eco-friendly power sources.
H    Ensure supply of cheap power and better supply to all homes.

The Forum, in its letter to the chief minister has listed the arbitrary nature of tariff hike as well as lack of transparency and public accountability in the decision-making process of so-called autonomous state electricity regulatory commission which sanctifies the increase by the corporate as well as state-run supply agencies. According to it, neither consumers were consulted nor the suppliers' activities were reviewed before hiking the tariff at the rate of 15-25 percent for 29 lakh CESC and 1.5 crore WBSEDCL consumers. CESC has been charging additional tariff to mop up the arrear payment for 2014-15 since March this year.

The letter also pointed out that the rate of electricity tariff in Bengal continues to be the highest in the country while CESC was allowed to hike its rate three times in last four years. The Forum which had articulated its demands at a citizen's convention in June, demonstrated in front of CESC headquarters and later at the office of the regulatory body demanding the rollback of the hiked rates. But the Commission, which is now being run by a single technocrat, has issued its verdict for tariff in 2015-16 without repealing the hike for the last fiscal.

The single bench panel has admitted to the media that Bengal tariff is highest in the country but justified the profit-mongering for ensuring better services by the suppliers. The Forum has also demanded the repeal of the central government's Electricity Amendment Bill 2014 since it has proposed further privatization of the power sector by segregating the power distribution and supply and licensing multiple private supply companies. More ominous is the move to make the tariff market determined under a minimal price ceiling, a bitter pill sweetened with the promise to allow consumers to choose among suppliers.

The city police, which had initially allowed the hunger strike changed its mind next day under the government's instruction, which obviously felt threatened by the fast unto death, once Mamata Banerjee's weapon to unnerve the LF government. 13 strikers were arrested. Some of the strikers refused to take bail and continued their fast in jail while the rest came out to carry on campaign outside.

As they continued to hit the street despite their small numbers, the city police authority assured to allow the protest at College square, an assembly point for student movements in central Kolkata, but outside the perimeters of state and corporate power centers at the downtown. But that too was denied later on the ground that the government would not allow any fast unto death anywhere in Bengal. Police and ruling party toughs tried to scare the agitators to call off the protest.

But the latter's determination has brought them back to Dharmotala, the traditional protest hub at the downtown, a stone's throw away from CESC headquarters since 14 September. But this time, the police tried its best to push the strikers out of public gaze and attention as much as possible by confining the protesters at the back side of the metro channel.

The irony of the much-hyped Paribartan or change of guards is unmistakable. Mamata Banerjee held her fasts in front of the Victoria House, the CESC headquarters and in the final lag of her opposition years at the front side of Metro channel, a small but prominent space above the Dharmotala metro station opposite the Metro cinema, a popular rallying point for protesters since Singur-Nandigram agitation days. Both spaces are now virtually reserved for the TMC rallies and government shows. Larger parties like BJP and CPM which had money and number to fight back, held their rallies there.

But the TMC government is most ruthless and vengeful to the smaller, marginal left forces, which had mostly rallied around her during the movement against land-grab in Singur and Nandigram, in the name of containing Maoists or radical lefts.

CPM's role
Interestingly, the former principal ruling party initially kept mum over the Forum's agitation against tariff hike, apparently because of its attack on CESC, whose owners were under the wings of CPM top leaders for decades during the LF rule. But later they sensed the import of the issue in view of the pent-up public anger against spiraling tariff and arbitrary billing etc across the class divide. As the assembly poll is round the corner, CPM which is in a claw-back mode after licking its wounds for four years has realized the potent of the popular issue for regaining its lost credibility. So the CPM-led LF has formally lapped it up and held dharnas in front of the CESC office as well as state power department recently.

Claiming that its government had followed a cross-subsidy policy to lighten the burden on poor consumers while keeping the overall tariff low in comparison to other states, the LF has accused TMC regime of doing away with the subsidy while allowing exorbitant hike that pinches consumers across the classes. Having highlighted the profit maximization by the CESC in last four years of TMC rule, the CPM-led campaign is silent on the company's monopoly in the city and adjoining districts. It has also failed to address the democratic demands for public accountability of corporate and state-run units, particularly, those with public interface as well as genuine participatory decision-making by the regulatory commission and the larger question of social control over natural and community resources beyond State.

Clearly, CPM's politics of development which still hinges more upon courtship with the corporate groups has its bearing on the party's cautious move. It wants to extract the mileage out of the popular discontent to regain power but not to send any 'wrong message' to its patrons in the Bengal Inc. The CPM leaders have lampooned Mamata Banerjee for having a 'deal' with Sanjiv Goenka as the tycoon is now included in her charmed circle and has accompanied her in all foreign visits. They also mocked her for conferring 'Banga-bibhusan' award on the Goenka scion while clearing the path for running a gigantic supermall in south-central Kolkata. All these barbs have justifiably put Mamata's anti-corporate credibility under scanner which she had gained during Singur-Nandigram years as well as by refusing to acquire farmland for private sector after assuming power.

But it also reveals the selective amnesia of CPM leaders who have conveniently forgotten their patronage to the RPG group which helped them to take over the company and extend its tentacles over the decades in Bengal as well as Kerala. Such was the level of CPM's benevolence to the corporate group, former power minister and a respected technocrat, Dr Sankar Sen had to leave Jyoti Basu's ministry after he had tried to control RPG's monopolistic unfair practices.

Kolkata and residents of its suburbs witnessed brutal crackdowns by the police–CPM faithful combine on the SUCI workers who had run sustained campaign against electricity tariff hike during the LF government. Dharnas in front of offices of the CESC and state power agencies were attacked and abused. Even women were not spared. All the repression was unleashed in the name of peace and development of the state. Trinamul is just aping CPM both in rhetoric and coercive State practices as rulers of all hues do.

The SUCI-led All Bengal Electricity Consumer Association which had earned its credibility due to its earlier campaigns and its resilience despite repressions declined to join any fresh agitation except one under its banner. On the other hand, not all the radical left groups are warm to the Forum initiators and their decision-making process, hence maintaining distance. Sectarianism, factionalism, one-upmanship and ego clashes have been endemic among radicals and not-so-radicals almost from the time immemorial. But enough is enough. If they really care for people and sincere in rekindling left politics and its ideological appeal among people, it's high time to shun the fratricidal, frogs-in-the-well practices. Else, the entire spectrum will become irrelevant and more marginalized despite their courage, conviction, honesty and resilience.

Vol. 48, No. 19, Nov 15 - 21, 2015