Punchups, kidnappings mar India's efforts to privatise power

It is rough being an employee of Torrent Power Ltd in Agra. Furious residents regularly take staff of the power distributor hostage or beat them up, stone-throwing mobs besiege the firm's high-walled compound, and one official recently had to be hospitalised after he was hit on the head with a brick.

On some days there are more than 10 protests staged around the city against Torrent, which won the franchise to supply power to Agra in 2009. When it took over, rampant theft and a failure by authorities to crack down on defaulters meant that 70 per cent of electricity consumed in the city was not paid for.

But Torrent's efforts to make customers pay have triggered a city-wide backlash and a storm of claims that it over-charges, uses heavy-handed tactics against defaulters and deliberately curbs the number of hours of electricity a day to save money.

Torrent is cheating people and that has made them angry, said Ram Shankar, the Member of Parliament for Agra, who says he receives up to 15 complaints a day from constituents unhappy about the penalties. If they don't attend to people, they will be beaten up.

The company's defence -- that it inherited a ramshackle network suffering from years of under-investment and that the blackouts are beyond its control -- has fallen on deaf ears.

Torrent's woes in Agra, home to the country's most famous monument, the Taj Mahal, illustrate how India's efforts to modernise its economy are often thwarted by local politics that feed on fear of change.

It is also a cautionary tale for the Indian government, which has unveiled a bailout plan for debt-ridden electricity distribution companies - most of which are owned by states - and made it a condition for them to look at adopting the distribution franchise model to help slash massive losses.

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