Every wire that Loha Singh, the protagonist in and as Katiyabaaz, entangles with the transformer, jangles the memories of my growing years. The long, dark nights and hot summer afternoons without electricity, and years of promises and sulking over a basic necessity is not just a satirical topic for a National Award winning documentary but the life that I and 3 million others like me have lived and still have to go through.
Aiming to highlight the inefficient electricity supply in the industrial town of Kanpur, the movie hits bull’s-eye. Directed by Deepti Kakkar along with Kanpur native Fahad Mustafa, the film captures the still ongoing tiff between the authorities and citizens, politicians versus whistleblower bureaucrats and the growing needs of a city against a crumbling system.
Having lived – nay, survived – almost 20 years of my life with never more than 15 hours of power a day, sometimes less, and sometimes even days with it, I understood why the film’s sub-title is ‘powerless’. It reflects the growing unrest that translates into street fights and riots, it’s the scarcity of basic resources, and it’s the false promise of headstrong local politicians against the helplessness and callous attitude of authorities. More than all this, it’s the nature of the citizens to defy change that strips them of the luxury of enjoying free electricity.
Loha Singh is an ironical epitome of status quo and both the reason and cause of lawlessness. He powers the houses, usually of the lower income strata, through illegal connections and is a messiah for them. In contrast, Ritu Maheshwari, the celluloid chief of the Kanpur Electricity Supply Corporation is out to nab such thieves.
The new boss directs raids and cracks the whip on these illegally-on-the-grid households to get legal connections and pay bills. Singh defies the decree and is still out there stealing electricity and looking for ways to give free and illegal power to penniless people – A Power Robin Hood, if you please. While the audience decides who the real hero is, a local politician warns, “Bijli wale sahib, kal se 16 ghante bijli nahi aayi toh aap honge aur hum.”(Mr Electricity Chief, if we don’t get 16 hours of power supply starting tomorrow, then you will have deal with me).
Well researched, shot and compiled, the documentary, however, refrains from declaring who is right and makes both Singh and Maheshwari heroes of the piece. The villain is the ‘system’ that shows some green shoots but dies under political heat. Kanpur, which was the constituency of the last coal minister, doesn’t stand to benefit from any of these characters. This raises a question on the entire power transmission of the country which suffers 25% transmission and distribution losses and around 35% if one accounts for power theft as well. In cities like Kanpur, it’s as high as 45%.
Historically famed mills have died slow deaths due to the power crisis, industrial spaces have been scrunched into MSME hubs, and people have made peace with the fact that the situation won’t change. The ‘authorities’ are happy that no one is challenging the decades-old status quo. And in the film, a citizen is shown commenting, “Ye bijli waale he chor banate hain imaandaar aadmi ko (The electricity authorities are responsible for converting a honest man into a thief).” Necessity is the mother of dishonesty!
Under Maheshwari’s tenure, three years back, there were talks and tenders for privatisation of power distribution. Some of the noted names in the power sector were in the run. Torrent Power, known to give turned around the electricity supply in many cities in Gujarat started the reforms. But the latest buzz is that it’s pulling out of the city.
Amidst all this, there is a generation of people like me for whom a power cut is synonymous with our adolescence, which meant studying by the light of kerosene lamps as inverters were costly, night-long quiz-and-antakshari sessions, the noise and smoke of diesel generators and news reports the next morning citing civil unrest in some part or the other due to power cuts.
As the movie ends with a desolate Singh and a defeated Maheshwari, there is a still a tug in one’s heart that wonders when the city will regain its glory. ‘Aadhe bujjhe chirag ke talle poora Kanpoora’ (Under a half-snuffed lamp is a full Kanpur) is the song that plays in the background and sums up the half-baked dreams of the city, which is waiting for a magic ‘katiya’ to ward off the power woes.
(The writer reports on the power sector for Business Standard in New Delhi and is still proud of her roots in the Manchester of the East, Kanpur).