Bengal govt ready for CAA-like tussle with Centre over new electricity law

Power minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay told The Federal that the state has conveyed its objections and if needed will take a tough stance against the Centre just as it took against the CAA

Electricity Act 2003, Electricity Amendment Bill, free power supply, West Bengal, CAA,
Spokesperson of the All India Power Engineers Federation (AIPEF) V K Gupta in a statement said if the bill is passed the farmers would have to pay a monthly power tariff of ₹5,000-6,000. Photo: iStock

The West Bengal government has hinted that it will not implement the amendment proposed to the Electricity Act, 2003 by the Centre, in a defiance that indicates another CAA-like tussle between the central government and the state.

West Bengal power minister Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay told The Federal that the state government had already conveyed its objections, mainly to four provisions of the draft bill as it “infringes” on rights of the state to manage its electricity utilities.

He cautioned the Centre against diluting the state’s power to manage electricity, which is under the concurrent list of the Constitution, meaning it is administered both by the Centre and the state governments.

He said if the bill is passed in the present form without taking into account the states’ concern, the respective states would be within their rights not to implement it, indicating, if necessary West Bengal would again take a tough stance against the Centre just as it had taken against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, earlier this year.

In January, the West Bengal assembly passed a resolution not to implement the controversial Citizenship Act that had triggered a nationwide protest and unrest, pitting several non-BJP ruled states against the Centre.

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The state governments’ opposition to the CAA sparked a renewed debate on the country’s federal structure and whether the states have the power to defy a central act.

Even before that debate was settled, the Centre came up with the draft Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2020 in April and circulated it among the stakeholders seeking their comments at a time when the entire country is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting the scope of any extensive and meaningful dialogues.

Among others, the main areas of contention, Chattopadhyay said, are the attempts to privatise power distribution companies, set up an Electricity Contract Enforcement Authority (ECEA), end subsidies and cross subsidies, and make one tariff for the electricity across the country.

He said, through the amendments to the existing Electricity Act, the Centre proposed to privatise the entire power sector and make electricity costlier for the poor and the farmers.

He opined that farmers and marginalised sections would be the worst affected if subsidies and cross-subsidies were done away with.

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The ECA, having been granted sole authority to adjudicate matters related to specific performance of contracts related to purchase or sale of power, between power generation companies (gencos) and distribution companies (discoms), would dilute the power of the state and central regulatory commissions to settle such matters, he added.

“The Central Government has violated the concurrent status of electricity by imposing its terms on cross-subsidy, direct benefit transfer to farmers and below-poverty-line consumers, setting up of ECA and privatisation of discoms,” Chattopadhyay said.

Several other states including Telangana and Tamil Nadu, and power sector employees too opposed the bill.

Spokesperson of the All India Power Engineers Federation (AIPEF) V K Gupta in a statement said if the bill is passed the farmers would have to pay a monthly power tariff of ₹5,000-6,000, while subsidized domestic consumers will have to pay at least ₹8-10 per unit for consumption of up to 300 units per month.

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