Electricity theft or tampering with the electricity meter has been around since Thomas Edison opened the world’s first electricity generating station in London in 1882. Meter tampering means doing any act which causes the meter to run slower or not at all and is basically theft of electricity from the company that supplies power.[i] There are multiple ways to tamper with an electricity meter and some of them include turning the watthour meter upside down (prior to digitization this would make the meter turn backwards), replacing the meter with items such as copper wires or knives, or drilling a hole in the meter and inserting something to stop the disc at night and removing the object in the morning so that no one would suspect electricity theft. Extreme measures of electricity theft include breaking the meter itself or replacing your meter with someone else’s. Luckily, the Electricity Act was enacted in 2003 to curb rampant electricity theft.
Electricity meter tampering by consumers
As mentioned above, consumers have the resources and knowledge to carry out successful tampering with an electricity meter and in a country like India where there is an absence of street cameras and a large population, it is easy to get away with the act. In order to keep a check on electricity theft, the Electricity Act, 2003 was enacted.
The Indian Penal Code (IPC) has a provision punishing theft under Sections 378 and 379 but in the case of Syed Yaqoob Syed Masood v. The State of Maharashtra and Anr[ii], the Supreme Court held that the IPC deals with theft of moveable property and as electricity is energy and not property, the right Act to sue under is the Electricity Act, 2003.
Under section 135 of the Electricity Act, any person who dishonestly taps a meter, tampers with the meter, damages or destroys the meter, uses electricity through a tampered meter or uses electricity for unauthorized purposes shall be liable for punishment of up to 3 years in prison or with a fine, or both.[iii] The Act also mentions the amount of the fine depending on the severity of the offence and it empowers any officer of the licensed supplier, if suspicious of electricity theft, to inspect premises, search and seize devices used for theft/tampering and examine documents relevant to initiate proceedings against the wrongdoer.[iv]
In the case of Suresh Ganpati Halvankar v. The State of Maharashtra and ors[v], the Supreme Court held that theft of electricity is a compoundable offence under the Electricity Act, 2003. The Supreme Court held, in the case of MP Electricity Board v. Harsh Wood Products[vi], that when a consumer is found guilty of electricity theft, the suppliers need not issue a notice before disconnecting the power supply and the supply need only be restored after the consumer pays a fine and compensates the supplier.
Electricity meter tampering by the suppliers
One may think that it is only consumers who attempt electricity theft and meter tampering, but this is not true. Often suppliers of electricity will tamper with the meter themselves and blame the consumer in an attempt to make some extra money. In cases like this, the consumer has a right to approach a Consumer Redressal Commission under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 as the provision of electricity is a service so anyone who avails this service is a consumer and can file a complaint. The consumer can file a complaint in either the District Consumer Forum (cases up to ₹20 Lakhs), State Consumer Redressal Commission (cases from ₹20 Lakhs to ₹1 Crore) or the National Consumer Redressal Commission (jurisdiction for cases above ₹1 Crore). In the case of Maharashtra State Electricity Board v. Vichand Tolaram Bhojwani[vii], the Gujarat Consumer Redressal Commission found that the electricity suppliers had tampered with the electricity meter and blamed it on the consumer so the judges ordered the suppliers to restore electricity supply and to pay compensation to the complainant.
Under the Electricity Act, 2003, any consumer of electricity who has a grievance can make a representation for redressal to an authority known as an Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is appointed by the State Electricity Regulatory Commission and a representation of a grievance can be made to him by the consumer or by anyone on behalf of the consumer.[viii]
Suggestions to prevent electricity theft
With increase in digitization and the advancements in technology, a foolproof method to prevent electricity theft is to install electronic ‘smart meters’ or ‘e-meters’ that record electricity consumption and send the reports to the suppliers who can then accurately track the usage.[ix] A ‘smart meter’ is different from traditional electrotechnical meters as they have systems to measure consumption, a clock to stamp time information, communication systems and fault reporting and diagnostic capabilities. All these features make it easier for suppliers to track the consumption, to identify irregularities and to maintain a record as evidence in case any proceedings are initiated against them.
Electricity theft or electricity meter tampering is a serious crime and it not only affects consumers and suppliers, but it also affects innocent third parties if the meters are being swapped. Therefore, a strict implementation of the law is necessary to combat the rise of electricity theft and measures like installing e-meters can be used as an effective deterrent.
Edited by Pragash Boopal
Approved & Published – Sakshi Raje
[i] Learn Metering, Meter Tampering, Parabola & WordPress, (August 3, 2019, 6:54 PM), http://www.learnmetering.com/pages/meter-tampering/
[ii] Syed Yaqoob Syed Masood v. The State of Maharashtra and Anr, Criminal Application No. 4415 of 2017, decided on February 8, 2018.
[iii] Electricity Act, 2003, No. 36, Acts of Parliament, 2003 (India).
[iv] The Electricity Act, 2003, No. 36, Acts of Parliament, 2003 (India).
[v] Suresh Ganpati Halvankar v. The State of Maharashtra and ors, Criminal Appeal No. 156 of 2018, decided on January 22, 2018.
[vi] MP Electricity Board v. Harsh Wood Products, (1996) SCC (4) 522.
[vii] Maharashtra State Electricity Board v. Vichand Tolaram Bhojwani, Gujarat State Consumer Redressal Commission, 2013.
[viii] Press Information Bureau, Ombudsman under Electricity Act, Ministry of Power, Government of India (August 4, 2019, 8:30 PM) http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=68781.
[ix] Paul Pickering, E-Meters Offer Multiple Ways to Combat Electricity Theft and Tampering, Electronic Design, (August 3, 2019, 7:01 PM),https://www.electronicdesign.com/meters/e-meters-offer-multiple-ways-combat-electricity-theft-and-tampering