Kerala Shows the Way: Says No to Centre’s Smart Meter Project
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IN a historic move, on August 25, 2023, the Kerala government declared its decision to not implement the central government-imposed TOTEX model prepaid smart metering project. This notorious TOTEX model prepaid smart metering initiative, operating under the framework of the Revamped Distribution Sector Scheme (RDSS), is designed to generate profits for private corporations such as Adani and TATA. This model will pave the way for the privatisation of the public electricity distribution sector and place a huge financial burden on the people in terms of their electricity bills.
In contrast, the Kerala government has opted to explore alternative approaches that prioritise the welfare of the people by harnessing the capabilities of the public sector. This decision, undoubtedly, is an expression of determination and opposition against the pro-corporate model. While extending congratulations to both the government and people of Kerala, the Electricity Employees Federation of India (EEFI) vows to intensify its efforts till there is a complete withdrawal of the project across the entire country.
Amidst ongoing and concerted efforts to reshape the public electricity sector under the directions of the World Bank, the union ministry of power, introduced the dangerous TOTEX model smart metering project. This scheme imposes a huge financial burden on each individual consumer, mandating a payment of Rs 8,000-12,000 per smart meter, which is projected to have a lifespan of approximately 7-8 years. This effectively translates into a direct loot of over Rs 2,50,000 crore from a staggering 26 crore consumers across India. As electricity costs have rapidly risen due to a series of anti-people policies implemented by the central government, the state-owned distribution companies (DISCOMs) have become dependent on financial assistance from the central government for their upgradation and ensure their viability to a certain extent. Exploiting this situation, in a reprehensible manner, the TOTEX model smart metering project has been enforced almost as a mandatory thing, utilising coercion tactics, including the abrupt withdrawal of all existing central financial support schemes.
WHY THIS DESPERATION?
This proposed scheme has various components and dimensions that are meticulously planned for serving the interests of the corporate entities closely aligned with the Modi government. A main aspect of this scheme involves the segregation of agricultural feeders (lines), which are then linked with private renewable energy sources. This move is aimed at establishing a captive market for private players, especially like Adani. All cross subsidies will be withdrawn, and every consumer, including farmers, will be exposed to the fluctuations of dynamically high-priced electricity. The scheme, in effect, mandates distribution companies (DISCOMs) to levy tariffs that reflect higher costs, thereby facilitating the private players' freedom to set their rates at will. And finally, the household-level consumer smart metering will technically enable private players to access the existing DISCOM’s network through parallel licensing, effectively bypassing the necessity to develop their own independent infrastructure. There are already instances of deliberate efforts by companies like Adani and TATA to pursue parallel licensing arrangements in various states.
Undoubtedly, the enforced implementation of prepaid smart metering will create a regular market for the sale of prepaid smart meters, and prominent bidders for these projects include Genus, Adani, and TATA. This will amass a treasure trove of enormous household data from each and every consumer, subsequently placing this valuable information in the hands of electricity market controllers. This, in turn, will enable them to levy maximum tariffs during peak demand hours. It will empower private corporations to cherry pick regions for the entry of private distribution companies. What is particularly noteworthy is that this scheme introduces a mechanism to institute and manipulate Time of Day Tariffs in a manner that maximises profitability for the private energy corporations that control the market.
The orchestrated narrative propagated by the Modi government fervently touts this scheme as a means of network upgradation and technological progress. However, it is essential to recognise that transmission and distribution losses can be reduced through upgradation of the entire network. In this broader context, household metering constitutes only a fraction of the extensive distribution network, making it strikingly apparent that more than two-thirds of the project's cost is allocated to household metering, raising questions about its disproportionate allocation of resources.
In light of this context, EEFI has categorically called for an immediate halt to the implementation of smart metering under the TOTEX model within the framework of RDSS. It demanded that all sorts of upgradation of meter technology should be undertaken by the distribution companies (DISCOMs) or by the public sector units (PSUs). The involvement of third-party private agencies in the installation of smart meters within the DISCOM's network should be strictly prohibited. Moreover, the responsibility for operation and maintenance should exclusively rest with the DISCOM itself.
Necessary measures must be taken to enhance the capacity and proficiency of DISCOM's IT department to effectively manage large-scale data, ensure the security of individual's sovereign information, and counter potential cyber threats and system failures. Notably, there should be a strict prohibition against the sharing of household data with any external entities.
The potential obsolescence of jobs due to technological advancement should be offset through the expansion and diversification of the DISCOM, safeguarding employment opportunities. The workforce strength of DISCOMs should remain intact, and any encroachment into the DISCOM’s network through parallel licensing should be sternly prevented.
It is essential to establish a well-defined, time-bound objective to reduce DISCOM's reliance on the fluctuating, volatile power market. In DISCOM's power purchase plan, priority should be accorded to long and mid-term Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). The market price ceiling within the power exchange should be reduced and made at par with the regulated tariff. All power generators must ensure production of power to maintain the necessary level of Plant Load Factor (PLF) and ensure the supply to the market, whether through PPAs or other means, in order to meet the electricity demand.
The Kerala model undoubtedly represents a paradigm of knowledge-driven resistance, concurrent with the development of corresponding capacities and a resolute struggle to forge alternatives in opposition to the neoliberal policies. The collective efforts of Kerala's electricity employees and engineers enabled to comprehend and dissect the malevolent scheme, which was then meticulously conveyed to all sections of people. Through mass meetings, conventions, and mobilisation efforts across the entire state, they succeeded in equipping a large section of consumers with a clear understanding of the impending threat.
The people of Kerala responded with a spirit of unwavering resistance. Simultaneously, the Kerala government vigorously contested this unilateral imposition by the central government that intrudes into our federal structure. The collective might of employees, consumers, and the people’s government has effectively paved the way for an alternative trajectory, poised to lead the country forward once again.
The Kerala LDF government has unequivocally expressed that the implementation of TOTEX model of smart metering will lead to privatisation and will impose an additional burden on the state's consumers, and that therefore it will not implement this project. There will be network upgradation, including the installation of advanced smart meters, while safeguarding the interests of the common people. The installation of smart meters will be overseen by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), with metering arrangements, data management, and billing all falling within the purview of the public sector; whether under KSEB or any other PSU, or LDF consortium with KSEB, is yet to be finalised.
In this new system, KSEB will independently develop the billing software and related services. The introduction of the Kerala Fiber Optics Network (K-FON), another pioneering initiative by the Kerala LDF government, will facilitate communication through cost-free fiber optic cables provided to KSEB. Data storage can also be managed using KSEB's data centre. The task of replacing old meters and installing smart meters will be undertaken by KSEB employees. Initially, the system will be rolled out for industrial and commercial users, encompassing less than three lakh people.
Since both data and metering will be under the public sector units (PSUs), the government can effectively curtail the possibility of parallel licensing. As the entirety of the project will remain under government control, there is a prospective opportunity to implement the project at a lower cost than the one proposed by the central authority. Moreover, the Kerala government is actively exploring alternative sources of power generation to meet the long-term demand for electricity.
The electricity employees and engineers of Kerala are deeply engaged in this process of policy-technology development. Undoubtedly, Kerala possesses the essential techno-economic-political components to build such an alternative through multifaceted struggles, and this forms the bedrock of the Kerala model.
In the face of continually expanding communication services that permeate all segments of society, coupled with diminishing opportunities for permanent employment in vital sectors such as electricity and telecommunications, the moment has arrived to elevate and reshape the industry-level economic struggle into a broader confrontation between the masses and a select group of corporate entities. This marks an evolution of the struggle, progressing from economic to political dimensions, with the overarching aim of reclaiming and advancing society's collective rights over production and services. The strategic striking capacity of these core sector workers, when unified with the collective power of the people, can change the balance of class forces in favour of a movement towards socialism which is the only alternative to the crisis-ridden capitalist structure. In this transformative journey, the ongoing struggle of the people of Kerala remains an unwavering guiding light.
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