OPINION | Uninformed deliberation by public on MeECL 

For Meghalaya, citizens must denounce such kind of intense misinformation campaigns by immoral individuals, who are educated but do not hesitate to manipulate society using their political backing for earning some petty cash and publicity. It saddening that instead of empowering our society, they take people for a ride. 
By Patrick Kurbah | SHILLONG: 

The recent narratives being run by some members of the public on the Meghalaya Energy Corporation Limited (MeECL) is heavily disappointing. The only talk point - Privatisation. 

What is even more astonishing is that some local digital news organisations have even run anonymous propaganda-like opinion pieces to say that the MeECL's move of privatisation is a personal agenda for the Sangmas to preserve the Garo Hills but not the people of Khasi and Jaintia Hills. What a divisive claim!

Agreed that the current government has had its fair share of downfalls, which I think is necessary to clarify before I start moving ahead with the article. I am not in support of such downfalls. I am one with the common citizens when they express their angst. But the government cannot be expected to engage with the people at any level if below-the-belt arguments are being made as members of the august society, without any tinge of constructive dialogue and deliberation. As an educated society, I think we deserve to be a little bit more far-sighted. Let us exercise this agency.

Narratives of Factions

It seems not only irresponsible for news organisations to run divisive narratives, but also for the public to bestow their sources of information on a select few influential members of society, who have made the entire issue political but failed to provide a detailed explanation of the issue or even propose alternatives. 

It is pretty safe to claim that the current issue seems driven by misinformation and I will conclusively prove the reasons for the same through my arguments. At this point, having gone through some of the publicly available documents and reports, I will attempt to explain some of the nuances of the proposed move made by the power department to hand over maintenance affairs of some of the sub-stations to Broadcasting Engineer Consultants India Limited (BECIL).

Right at the outset, the proposed move in no way reeks of privatisation as only maintenance affairs of sub-stations are being handed to BECIL. This means that BECIL will help the power department by identifying roadblocks in the supply chain of power distribution of such sub-stations, which has historically suffered from issues including bad wiring, technical issues, untimely maintenance, routines and unchecked resource allocations. 

MeECL’s employee association CCORMAU, composed of many powerful officials, has written to the government to scrap the agreement with BECIL, citing that it is an added cost for the power department and something that can easily and efficiently be handled by the current employees. 

Two arguments on this - First, when the loses for the sub-stations were piling up, why did the employees not behave efficiently in the first place to take ownership of work all these years? Secondly, if the CCORMAU has identified the issues in the letter to the government, why did it not bring up such issues previously, especially when the previous decade went by with the power department suffering, in turn making people face power cuts? 

Recently, a leader of the CCORMAU, PK Chullet, also stepped down from the association after proof of financial irregularities surfaced against him. For such a body to threaten the government with action is slightly ironical. 

What is BECIL?

Now getting down to harder facts. BECIL is not a private organisation. If one would visit www.becil.com, right at the top left corner of the website, a clear mention is made that it is a Government of India enterprise. If some of the propaganda-running media bodies, political influencers and CCORMAU, had attempted to check this using a simple Google search, perhaps they would not have brewed a storm amongst people. One can never know if the storm has been brewed on purpose, supported by any ulterior motives. 

I blame the media more for this because it is a part of journalistic ethics to verify every piece of information before publishing. And yet, some of the media organisations of our state failed to make this simple background check before running narratives.

Power Sector Across the Country

To look at the larger picture of the power sector across the country, every state is suffering from loss-making power departments, mostly due to the problems which exist with the distribution. 

This issue is not limited to Meghalaya – which has also seen its share of bad management when an agreement was signed in the late 2000s for buying power from PSUs, spiralling the department into irrecoverable debts. But moving away from our state, the current problems with the power department is due to the functional model of how electricity distribution works in our country.

Subsidies, power theft, improper technical management, non-payment by big entities and low technological interventions have led distribution units of power departments to constantly incur higher costs than profits. Albeit, collection means and methods are better for some states, but the larger problem cannot be narrowed down just to Meghalaya.

This is where the Central Government has taken the initiative of introducing a smart infrastructure for power departments across the country due to their reeling financial health. 

The initiative of the central government looks to have real-time monitoring of issues that can be solved on the go as and when detected. I think this is where the smart meters come in for our state and something which should be viewed as a positive engagement. 

For the first time, a specialised technological intervention is being introduced in the power department of Meghalaya to refine a half-a-century old system. In fact, some states across the northeast have taken a precedent from Meghalaya after studying the benefits of such an implementation. 

The Power Minister has time and again stated that consumers will not have to pay for the meters and neither does the state because the amount for setting up the infrastructure is being borne by the central government. The documents show this too. More so, it is likely to improve collection and solve infrastructural problems of the current system. 

I personally believe that even after the introduction of the smart meters, if the power minister fails to deliver on his promise, then he should definitely be called out. But to prematurely strike out a novel idea, especially when we had no ideas in the past, is not really warranted. Even then, some individuals and factions of our society, who are evidently politically motivated, have spread misinformation about this but never bothered to come out in front to show alternatives. A typical Luddite behaviour one could say. 

Delhi – A Precedent for the Move

The current move of handing maintenance affairs of power distribution to specialised and expert bodies finds a precedent in Delhi. Though Delhi took help from private bodies, which is not the case with Meghalaya as I have previously mentioned, the historical issues were much more aggravated for the capital as compared to our state.

In 2002, the government of Delhi was met with intense opposition when it proposed a decision to allow privatisation of the distribution sector, which saw losses of over 50 per cent, to the tune of the total accumulated losses being over Rs 23,000 crore for the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB).

Soon after handing over distribution, theft of power reduced, the collection improved, power cuts became almost nil, bills started reducing and in the current date, the power department is even being able to provide 200 units of free electricity. For a metro city as large as Delhi, where even air conditioners are run in summers and heaters in the winters, it perhaps has one of the lowest average consumer bills in comparison to the entire country. Not to mention, a majority of Delhi is also fitted with smart meters today.

An Appeal

For Meghalaya, citizens must denounce such kind of intense misinformation campaigns by immoral individuals, who are educated but do not hesitate to manipulate society using their political backing for earning some petty cash and publicity. It saddening that instead of empowering our society, they take people for a ride. 

Once again, I will not deny that there is no corruption in the current MDA government. There is evidence to suggest that there is. But to give credit where it is due, for the first time since the inception of our state, the power department is thinking by keeping long-term prospects in mind. 

The department, which has so bitterly suffered due to historical mistakes and a mind-numbing debt, has given some indication that it is trying to think towards the benefit of consumers while slowly emerging out from the current financial mess.

Therefore, I urge informed members of the society to come forward, examine the process and provide constructive feedback for bettering the initiatives. If we do not do so, at the end of the day, we suffer. As citizens, we have some responsibility on ourselves as well to ensure that public services are delivered to us in time. Let us exercise our agency, work with the government and hold it accountable where necessary, while moving away from misinformation. 

At the same time, knowing that tomorrow most probably someone from the political front will come forward and diss all my arguments without factual backing, I will urge whoever does so to at least provide an alternative for the benefit of society.

(The author is a legal consultant. He can be reached out at: kurbahpatrick@gmail.com)

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