MSEDCL Subsidy Scam Highlights Attitude To Solar Power in Maharashtra

Maharashtra’s latest ‘scam’ potentially shows up just why getting discoms on board to promote renewable power is so difficult.

mahavitaran scam

Has MSEDCL Been Lying ?

A  MERC (Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission) appointed committee has filed a report that accuses the state power distribution utility, Mahavitaran or MSEDCL as its English moniker goes, of outright fraud. The report claims that MSEDCL has overcharged domestic consumers by Rs 22,000 crores over a 5 year period between 2014 and 2019, by inflating agricultural consumption.

This committee by the MERC itself  had been formed after the findings of another committee , headed by MSEB (Maharashtra State Electricity Board) Director Vishwas Pathak, that had also accused the utility of inflating claims in 2017. The Pathak committee had blamed MSEDCL for inflating water pump usage figures by upto 90 percent to show higher agricultural share of power consumption.

The current panel includes MERC  executive director Rajendra Ambedkar, and GD Patil. It was assisted by power sector focused organisations including Prayas, Idam Infrastructure Advisory and the Administrative staff College of India. With such a distinguished line up, it will be very hard to brush the report of the committee under the carpet, as was done to the Pathak report earlier.

The number puts in doubt Mahavitaran’s claim of distribution losses of  15,400 million units per year, or 14 percent of total distribution. After adding the extra 11000 million extra units, which it has allegedly been attributing to agricultural production, that loss moves to 24 percent. A figure that will place it squarely among the worst performing discoms in India.

The high agricultural number was being used by the firm to justify its high costs for non agricultural consumers, who end u paying between 50 percent to 100 percent over the purchase cost of power for the discom. Agricultural customers pay for power at Rs 1.50 per unit, versus the buying cost of Rs 4. And how could MSEDCL do this?

The first para in the interim report makes it clear. “Electricity consumption by agriculture consumers constitutes almost 1/5th of total electricity consumption in India. In most of the agriculture dominant states, the sale of electricity for agriculture is reported to be in the range upwards of 30%.

Out of such reported sales, significant portion is ‘Estimated Sales’ owing to a large number of agriculture consumers being unmetered or with no energy meters installed. Based on review of statistics carried out, it is observed that more than 35% AG consumers in states like, Maharashtra, Gujarat, M.P are unmetered with exceptions of Punjab where 90% of AG consumers are unmetered and in Rajasthan only 10% of AG consumers are unmetered. Supply of electricity without meters remains a fact even after around 17 years of implementation of the Electricity Act, 2003 which has mandated supply of electricity only through meters, in pursuance of its Section 55″

What the whole ‘scam’ shows that subsidies, if given for long enough, will inevitably create vested interests, and corrupt practices that will stifle change later. In state after state, agricultural subsidies have been blamed for most of the losses discoms reel under. This is why even relatively expensive options like dedicated green corridors, created exclusively to meet agricultural demand, have found support, if only to better track actual agricultural consumption.

Smart meters, that better help track actual usage are one answer. However, a better solution is clearly to identify individual beneficiaries and transfer subsidy amounts directly to their accounts.  As has been done for the PM-KISAN scheme.

So how do such schemes impact renewable energy? For one, farmers have clearly been reluctant to embrace solar energy, without huge incentives again. After all, how can anything compete with free, or Rs 1.50 per unit?

A second blow has been stuck for solar power across categories like rooftop and commercial. With these customers paying a huge price premium for their grid power, the discom has been loathe to let them generate cheaper solar power, or even reduce their bills by producing some of their own power. Hence, the foolish attempts to muzzle it by pushing for net billing for instance, or even gross billing.

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Prasanna Singh

Prasanna Singh

Prasanna has been a media professional for over 20 years. He is the Group Editor of Saur Energy International