Gasping for breath: Kashmir’s prepaid power predicament

Feature Photo, Mohammad Shafi Shah breathes with an oxygen support system while his wife Sara sits next to his bed during a power cutdown in Srinagar's Gojwara locality on July 10, 2023. [FPK Photo/Umar Farooq.]

“The welfare government sticks to welfare programmes instead of coming up with prepaid smart meters.”

Octogenarian Mohammad Shafi Shah has been gasping for breath since 2010. There were times when his house in Old City’s Gojwara would turn into a gas chamber due to street strife. That disappeared smoke has now paved way for darkness rendering his oxygen machine redundant. As a desperate response to Kashmir’s chronic power ailment, Shah’s coppersmith son had to shell out his savings to save his ailing father’s breaths with a generator.

But beyond the current state of affairs and the poor man’s gripe over the smart meter drive, the breathing problem escalated by pandemic remains a flouted agony of Kashmir. To rest this situation and restore some normalcy in home, Shah’s septuagenarian spouse keeps shuttling between streets and living room.

“Government shouldn’t install smart metres as they’ll generate hefty bills beyond our capacity to pay,” Sara said with a concern. “Kashmir is a different place. We manage the electricity crisis during summers, but we’ve a different requirement for winters. Some of us face breathing issues during cold season that lasts around eight months. We need ample power supply to sustain. These smart meters will make us bankrupt.”

Sara was part of protest that lately broke out in Gojwara Chowk against the drive. The household ire was sparked by government’s move to replace traditional metres with smart ones. 

But to implement the smart drive, Sara says, power was deliberately disconnected in multiple areas. “The electricity was restored following a police intervention,” she says.

Women protestors block a road and halted traffic during a protest against the installation of smart meters in Habba Kadal locality in Srinagar, Kashmir, on July 12, 2023. [FPK Photo/Umar Farooq.]

Inside her poorly-lit room, Sara’s youngest son—Ashiq—narrates the existential anguish of lower middle class families in Kashmir today. Being a coppersmith, he has to stay extra cautious about his father’s poor health. 

“He’s on a life support,” Ashiq looks at his pale and skinny father. “He can’t live without electricity. But due to our power crisis situation, I had to buy a generator. It’s further taxing our pocket.”

Many urban pockets lately witnessed protests over the smart meters. On 16th July 2023, women, men and children came out with candles from Zaldagar locality of Srinagar to protest the current drive. Women sang folksongs to resist the move. Some dissenters even load the smart metres into load-carriers and send them back to the Kashmir Power Distribution Corporation Limited (KPDCL).

Since there’re two types of smart meters—prepaid and postpaid—authorities in Kashmir have already installed the latter. And now they’re changing them to prepaid mode in a phased manner. 

In the first phase, the government is converting 56000 postpaid meters into prepaid ones. Some 300,000 meters are expected to be completed in the second phase by October 2023. 

But this “good governance” move is now becoming a flashpoint of anger in certain urban pockets living with limited means. “Electricity is a natural resource in Kashmir,” says Shabir Ahmad, a commoner on street resisting the drive. “If electricity can be free in Delhi, why can’t it be in the hydropower-rich Kashmir? We’ll use hearth for cooking and candles for light, but we’ll never let them succeed in installing smart metres.”

But the recent Raj Bhavan statement makes these localised disapprovals as a mere storm in a teacup. 

On 8th July 2023, Jammu and Kashmir’s Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha said that there was no alternative to the smart metres as power debt bills for Jammu and Kashmir mounted to Rs 31,000 crore in the past four years. 

According to the Central Electricity Authority, Jammu & Kashmir’s electricity consumption has experienced fluctuations over the years, reaching its peak at 10,623.000 GWh in 2020 and hitting a record low of 1,718.450 GWh in 1996. 

Amid the data-driven move, commoners like Raja Begum are grappling with darkness. 

Workers install smart meters in Srinagar’s Habba Kadal locality on July 11, 2023. [FPK Photo/Umar Farooq.]

Living alone inside her two-storied house at Gojwara, the old mother worries about her health and hefty electricity bills.

“Smart meters cannot be affordable for all,” Raja says. “The government should do a door-to-door survey before installing them.”

Since most of these protests are coming from Old City, many say that the decades long conflict in Kashmir has escalated urban poverty of the area housing many asthma patients. The locals blame the bygone skirmished atmosphere filled with tear-gas smoke and pepper gas for the breathing crisis. “If anything untoward happens to these patients due to non-availability of electricity, who will be responsible for that,” Raja asks. “They rely on the oxygen support system.” 

In Habba Kadal, an ailing Ghulam Rasool, who’s on an oxygen support system, had to face the brunt of tension between authorities and locals. Even as the locals were able to pressurise the concerned authorities to restore electricity, the smart meter drive didn’t stop. It’s now making the ailing man a bit worried. 

“This issue should end once and for all,” Ghulam Rasool says. “There are many people like me. And they can’t withstand any darkness.”

A woman looks on as a lineman installs the Smart Meter in Srinagar. [FPK Photo/Umar Farooq.]

Amid the pitched street protests, Shurjeel Ghani Lala, superintending engineer Nodal Officer Smart Meters says the government wants to remove mental block from peoples’ minds by implementing the smart meter drive.

“The prepaid meter system will allow consumers to recharge as much as they want,” Lala says. “After calculating their electricity usage monthwise, consumers can split the bills to make it easy for their pockets and pay in instalments.”

But the installation of prepaid smart meters goes against the laws of the welfare state, says activist Dr. Raja Muzaffar Bhat. “India is a welfare state. Electricity is a basic need. If a mobile phone company can give the option of both prepaid and postpaid, then why can’t the government?”

Instead of working on these smart metres, Bhat says, the government should come up with covered electric wires, underground electric cable systems. “The welfare government sticks to welfare programmes instead of coming up with prepaid smart meters.”

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