How unpaid electricity bills caused a deadly cholera outbreak in a village in Maharashtra

Drinking water had just started flowing from newly installed taps in Pachdongri village, Amravati district, Maharashtra, last month when the power supply to the hilly hamlet was cut off over unpaid bills.

Residents associate the power outage with an ensuing cholera outbreak, killing five.

Pachdongri’s windfall electricity bill of Rs 52,000, pending for about five months, is a tiny part of the huge strain on India’s stressed electricity supply chain, in which utility distributors electricity owe nearly Rs 1 lakh crore to largely thermal generation companies.

Utilities have to pay coal companies upfront to buy the fossil fuel needed to generate electricity, but are struggling to do so because their cash flow is tight due to consumers not paying for their electricity, which which threatens the supply.

As India attempts to cut losses in its power sector with financial aid to utilities and the promotion of solar power in agriculture, the financial pressure on the sector has had a tragic impact on Pachdongri , a village of less than 1,000 inhabitants.

“If the water supply had continued, deaths could have been avoided as people were drinking contaminated water from a well,” said Sanjay Bhuta Jamunkar, 32, council chief of five villages including Pachdongri .

Following the cholera outbreak, the government has ordered utilities not to disconnect power supply from public water supply works, and the state is also considering writing off village council debts, said public service officials.

“It was our first electricity bill for running the water pump. We weren’t sure we would have to pay it as the water connection works were still ongoing,” Jamunkar said, noting that the council pays the property’s bills and the water taxes it levies. on households.

“But the collections are poor because it’s a tribal area, people are either landless or smallholders. Many are unemployed. We try to manage,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

demand peak

Extreme heat in India this year has pushed electricity consumption to unprecedented levels, causing widespread blackouts as utilities scramble to meet demand amid dwindling coal supplies .

Electric utility company officials say they are walking a tightrope in their day-to-day dealings with generation companies as they write off roughly enough debt to keep power supplies online.

Pachdongri is powered by state-owned Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Ltd, which warned its three million consumers last December that it would disconnect power to those who failed to pay their bills.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters.

The utility cited “an unprecedented amount of arrears and a growing financial burden” as a threat to its very existence.

Vijay Singhal, chairman and chief executive of the power utility, said his company has to buy power to supply it to consumers. “I ask people to pay because I don’t get it for free,” he added.

Data from the electricity utility shows that rural consumers owe it more than Rs 60,000 crore, while urban consumers owe Rs 6,200 crore.

Singhal said the power utility used hydroelectricity during heat waves this year and is adding wind and solar power to overcome coal shortages and cut costs.

Local officials who cut Pachdongri’s power supply said they had informed the village council of the impending cut if he did not pay at least part of his dues. Power was restored within a day, they added.

“If they used electricity, they have to pay for it,” said Dilip Khanande, superintendent engineer of the Amravati electricity utility.

Officials of Jal Jeevan Mission, a pan-Indian project to ensure that every rural household receives 55 liters of water per capita per day, have estimated that around 40% of village council electricity bills are related to operation of water pumps.

Khanande said he was only able to recover half of the monthly bills of around Rs 1 crore accrued for operating around 2,000 rural water connections in his district.

High costs

Electricity availability in rural areas has increased from around 12.5 hours in 2015 to around 22.5 hours a day, with all villages now electrified, the central government announced this year.

But as long-awaited electricity and water connections reach more rural areas, the cost of consuming resources has increased.

“We are considering solar powered water pumps so they don’t need to be connected to electricity to avoid these problems,” said Hrishikesh Yashod, Maharashtra director for Jal Jeevan Mission.

With water pumps working more to power household taps, electricity consumption has increased, as have municipal electricity bills, said Yusuf Kabir, water and health specialist at the agency. United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef, in Maharashtra.

Samit Mitra, program manager for Smart Power India, a Rockefeller Foundation affiliate that works to improve access to electricity in rural India, said poor collection is often rooted in infrequent bills and high amounts. billing that does not reflect consumption, which damages consumer confidence.

“We see that the intention to pay is there. All they need is some level of service,” Mitra said.

UNICEF’s Kabir suggested installing water meters for households to pay taxes on their consumption, which would improve revenue collection for village councils to help cover electricity bills.

Wastewater contamination

Residents of Pachdongri village hoped that the completion of the tap water project in July would lead to a steady supply and end their dependence for drinking water at a well 2 km away.

Farmer Akshay Amode, 24, saw clean water flowing from his household tap for the first time a day before the power cut. Villagers then resorted to water from the well – but it was contaminated with sewage due to runoff caused by heavy rains, said health officials who tested the water.

About 200 people fell ill after drinking it and five died, officials said. Among them was Sahdev’s wife Ramaji Akhande, who had yet to see a tap running in her home.

The 32-year-old farmer, father of two, recalled the night his wife writhed in pain as he struggled to organize a private car to transport her to hospital.

Three days after his death, Akhande’s house was connected to tap water. But the supply is still intermittent, so he drinks water from the tankers that have been serving the village since the cholera outbreak and buys water for his farm.

He was unaware of another looming expense: the village council – which has yet to pay its unpaid electricity bill – is considering doubling the monthly water charge from 100 rupees per household.

“Life has become difficult,” says the widower, now raising his children alone.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

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