On Monday, the police arrested 51 persons from the Y-Road in Dharmatola, Kolkata, where The People's Movement Against Power Tariff Hike in Bengal had been on a hunger strike. They were starting preparations for a procession to the state power minister's office when the police swooped down on them. One of those arrested, Prasenjit Bose, had been fasting since September 5. The remaining seven hunger strikers were bundled off to the Calcutta Medical College where they were put on a drip, bringing an unceremonious end to their protest. Later, in the evening, all those arrested were freed, but the feisty agitation was strangled effectively.

On the afternoon of September 5, when members of the People’s Movement assembled in front of the handsome Victoria House building of the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation office for their hunger strike, the police directed them to sit next to the statue of Sir Ashtosh Mookerjee opposite. The area was barricaded and the protesters had a neat alcove. The attitude was avuncular: alright, you are protesting, but we must keep a handle on things. For the past five days, the protesters had run around various police, and government departments, for permission to sit on an indefinite hunger strike to protest the latest round of power tariff hikes approved in the state, but no official word had been forthcoming. The price of electricity in Kolkata is among the highest in the country and the state sees frequent hikes. The People’s Movement had been organising public meetings and rallies in the city since May but with little result. They were hoping to push the government into a dialogue on the issue  with a sustained street agitation. Eight persons began the fast, two of them young women studying in college.

But the next afternoon, September 6, the mood was sharply different. The police gave them an ultimatum: wind up your protest or come to jail. 18 people in all were arrested ‒ all eight of the hunger strikers, and ten volunteers. They were booked under Sections 143, 149, 186 and 283 of the IPC ‒ relating to unlawful assembly, obstructing public servants in the discharge of their duty and obstructing the public. They could get bail for Rs 200 each, but the People’s Movement decided against it. The stay in jail allowed them direct access to the police, and they used this to negotiate permission with the police. “The police gave us verbal permission to continue the hunger strike at College Square,” said Subhanil Chowdhury, a member of the movement, and a professor with the Institute of Development Studies in Kolkata. “We submitted a written request, and the police acknowledged receipt. Based on this conversation, we paid the bail amount on 9 September and came out to continue our agitation on the streets.”

When they reached College Square to continue the strike, the police swooped in again. “There is a pujo pandal at College Square,” said Rajeev Mishra, Joint Commissioner of Police, Kolkata. “The pujo organisers told the local police that they could not work if there was a demonstration there. We have to respect the local sentiments.” Mishra is the officer with whom the People’s Movement had been negotiating.

The strikers then moved to the home of Prasenjit Bose, a member of the movement who is fasting himself. But even within the privacy of a home, the police paid them regular visits, says Zico Dasgupta, a PhD student at JNU, who was among those who began fasting on 5 September. (He withdrew after seven days when his sugar levels plummeted.) Residents in the complex were told that there were Maoists inside Bose’s house. “We started out with an indefinite fast against the power tariff hikes. Now it seems, we are on an indefinite fast for the right to go on an indefinite fast,” said Dasgupta, with a chuckle.

Calcutta is, in any case, not an easy place to fast in. Everyone here is eating, talking about eating, or thinking about eating. On September 13, when the movement organised a public meeting, to mark the ninth day of their hunger strike and their intention to continue, the venue had a momo stall, a chai and biskoot stall, a roll and chowmein stall. A larger restaurant selling cold drinks, and a variety of deliciously greasy snacks stood behind the stage. “Didi, mutton nei (no mutton), try the chicken?” the momo stall’s chatty owner welcomed me to the venue. A clump of youngish kids were sitting on the chairs arranged for the meeting, and wolfing down plates heaped with glistening chowmein, with thick puddles of green chilli sauce and ketchup. The chai stall did brisk business with their malty chai in bhaars (clay cups), the policemen fortifying themselves in the late afternoon heat with the crumbly, sweet biscuits displayed in stout, slightly grimy jars.

It is an airless, humid evening, and the movement has organized a longish programme of speakers, mostly city-based intellectuals and academics. Speaker after speaker, most of them city-based intellectuals, criticises the state government for harassing the hunger strikers. Although electricity is still one of the cornerstones of our bijli, sadak, pani electoral politics, power tariffs are a complex, technical issue lacking the emotive appeal of a hunger strike. The irony is rich: this is the city where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee fasted for 26 days to protest land acquisition in Singur, and effectively paved the way for her historic victory after 34 years of Communist rule in West Bengal.

The next day, the strikers moved to the Y-Road in Dharmatola, the city’s protest square, to continue their agitation after sending a letter drafted by their lawyer to the police. Four more people joined the hunger strike on September 14.  The police did nothing for a week or so, before moving in on September 21 and arresting participants in the procession.

Retrospective tariff hike

In April, Prasenjit Bose, the former head of the research cell of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), noticed newspaper reports that CESC’s domestic electricity tariffs had gone up sharply with retrospective effect from April 2014. CESC, a private company owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group, is the sole power supplier in Kolkata. It also delivers power in parts of Hooghly, Howrah, South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts. Many newspaper reports quoted the hike at 18%, but Bose’s own calculation finds varying rates of increase across the slabs of domestic consumption.

This meant that not only had tariffs increased, but consumers would also have to pay arrears for the past year. “Just imagine, you buy something from a shop,” said Bose. “And after you have come home and opened it, the shopkeeper informs you that you have to pay more for it. This is what the CESC and the West Bengal Electricity Regulatory Commission are doing.” The state electricity commission, the WBSEDCL, which provides power outside of Kolkata, had also hiked tariff across slabs of usage.

He circulated the news among friends and acquaintances he had met at demonstrations and protest meetings in the city and in Delhi. A forum crystallised quickly through online and offline conversations, influenced likely in part by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s campaign against discoms in Delhi. Although it primarily comprises students and academics of Leftist affiliation, the forum decided that theirs would be a civil society movement. Among the demands of the People’s Movement against Power Tariff Hike in Bengal are a rollback of the hikes for 2014-15, more accountable functioning of the West Bengal Electricity Regulatory Commission, and countering the monopoly of the CESC in Kolkata.

The CESC charges among the highest domestic power tariff rates in the country. This is true, even when compared with other private power suppliers that can be presumed not to enjoy the subsidies that government suppliers do. The last Central Electricity Authority report, for 2013-14, allows for a comparison.

The hikes are especially incongruous given that coal prices have fallen to their lowest in 12 years. In May this year, West Bengal Power Minister Manish Gupta said that power tariffs were in fact likely to go down in the state over the next two or three years as the state had acquired six captive blocks in the coal block auctions held in February and March 2015. One of these blocks, Sarisatolli, was acquired by CESC.

But, in fact, CESC had to rebid for the rights to mine Sarisatolli, where it has been extracting coal since 1993, after the Supreme Court cancelled coal allocations in September 2014. The company had to pay Rs 900 crore as levies after the cancellation, this report notes. The price at which the company won the auction bid, Rs 470 per tonne of coal mined, is widely considered exorbitant, and a report in The Hindu considers it likely that the company would pass on the costs to its consumers. Yet, a power ministry directive, explained in this Business Standard report notes that companies who have acquired coal blocks cannot charge consumers higher rates for energy (coal). Only a “downward revision” of rates is permitted.

There is, further, an interesting discrepancy: Ann Josey, a research associate with the non-profit Prayas that works on energy policy and advocacy, points out that CESC’s below poverty line slab is 0-25 units a month. Every other supplier’s BPL slab is 0-30 units. (The exception is Delhi where the lowest slab is 0-200 units.) This goes against the spirit of the National Electricity Policy dated 2005 which lists electricity as an “essential requirement for all facets of our life” and a “basic human need”. With this understanding, the policy denominates one unit of electricity per day per household as minimum lifeline consumption to be provided as a merit good, and sets down this minimum provision as an objective for 2012. The BPL slab rate applicable for 0-30 units a month is clearly influenced by this approach. Thirty units a month covers the usage of two bulbs and a fan, estimates a Prayas report.

The People’s Movement also brings to notice the irregular functioning of the West Bengal Electricity Regulation Commission. The West Bengal body is possibly the only regulatory commission that does not hold public hearings. The state commissions in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are known to regularly conduct public consultations. The commissions often have consumer representatives – such as in Maharashtra, Odisha, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The WBERC has no consumer representative. Josey mentions the opaqueness of WBERC’s tariff orders. “It’s hard to understand anything from them. If you see a Maharashtra tariff order, for instance, even a layman can follow most of what is written.”

The mainstream English-language media has mostly ignored the power tariff agitation. The arrests of September 6 was noted in slim reports in The Telegraph, the leading newspaper in Kolkata, but said little about the movement. A senior editor in one of Kolkata’s leading English-language newspapers says, on condition of anonymity, that the city’s media is cautious about reporting the agitation because the Goenkas are so influential here. “In the past two weeks, I noticed several advertisements by CESC in various newspapers, even papers that usually do not get such advertisements.”

But a curious article appeared on September 12 in the daily Ei Samay, a Bengali newspaper published by The Times of India group. The article puts forth the argument of average tariff, calculating the average of various tariffs such as domestic, industrial, commercial and agricultural power rates offered by electricity suppliers. West Bengal’s average tariff sits somewhere in the middle. But this is a disingenuous argument, given that nobody actually pays an “average tariff” – consumers pay specific charges based on their category. The movement’s protest is against the hike in domestic tariffs, in which West Bengal’s rates are among the highest in India.

Didi’s silence

The Left Front followed the People’s Movement with a two-day protest in front of CESC’s Victoria House office on September 10 and 11. Incidentally, it was the Left Front government that privatised power supply in Kolkata, and sold the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation to the then-RPG Enterprises group in 1988. (RPG split into RPG and the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group when brothers Harsh and Sanjiv Goenka divided their business in 2011.) The Left Front government has overseen several power tariff increases in its tenure without much angst. In fact, the first forum of protest against electricity tariffs – Abeca (All Bengal Electricity Consumers’ Association) was constituted by the Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist) in 1992 to protest against severe and frequent power tariff hikes in the state.

On the other hand, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said nothing about this recent agitation. Not about the hunger strike, nor about rising power tariffs in the state. Both are issues that should reverberate with the inveterate street protester whose reputation is defined by her populist politics. In the beloved primer of protest politics, Rules for Radicals, the celebrated community organiser Saul Alinsky writes of how quickly things change when protesters move into government. “Eight months after securing independence, the Indian National Congress outlawed passive resistance and made it a crime,” he writes. “...Hunger strikes – used so effectively in the revolution – were viewed differently now too. Nehru said: ‘The government will not be influenced by hunger strikes... To tell the truth I didn’t approve of fasting as a political weapon even when Gandhi practiced it.’”

Didi, it would seem, is learning the rules of governance well.