CHENNAI:Saraswathi stared at her bill in disbelief. She owed the electricity department Rs 6,497. She lived in a 310-square-foot house with two fans, two tubelights, three light bulbs and a television set. Her previous bill was Rs 680.“The minute I got the bill, I knew something was wrong,” Saraswathi said. “There was no way my daughter and I would have consumed six thousand rupees worth of electricity.”
The corridor outside Saraswathi’s house, in Block C of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board tenements in Perumbakkam, is dark even during the day, thanks to the way it is designed. On a Thursday night in September, the corridor, lined by 12 houses on each side, is feebly lit up by a single bulb. “Nobody turns on the lights outside anymore for fear of the electricity bills increasing,” says Kasthuri, Saraswati’s neighbour. “We use the flash lights of our mobile phones instead.”
Chitra and her painter husband Sampath, who live a few blocks away, were convinced the number scribbled on their EB card was a mistake. Sampath took down the carefully preserved file of receipts and pulled out the latest. It was for Rs 10,010.
It was like an epidemic. Even as Sampath pondered his outsized bill, others were stepping out into the corridors, each with a bill in hand, wondering aloud. The group included three residents of different flats, all of whom for some reason had the exact same amount scribbled on their bills: Rs 4,948. “How can this happen?,” Amutha demanded.
The agitated residents argued about next steps. All felt the inequity. Some wanted to fight. Others advised caution: pay the bill, then complain or our power will be cut, they said.
But how? Saraswathi had shifted to this apartment three years ago, from Surya Nagar in Kotturpuram where she had worked as a domestic help. What she earned then was never even enough to keep her daughter in school regularly, or to keep pace with her husband’s alcoholism. But “a job is a job.”
Since she moved here, she depended on her husband, who earned Rs 6,000 a month — until he left, a month earlier, over some disagreement. She turned to her mother for support for the Rs 12,000 or so she needed to keep the home running, pay the maintenance, and keep her daughter in school.
Her mother had helped, but it wasn’t enough. “I borrowed Rs 50,000 from the local loan sharks,” she said. “When the bill came, I pledged my thaali.” She touches the frayed, discoloured yellow thread that hangs from her neck where her slender gold chain used to be.
Chitra is in a similar situation. She borrowed Rs 20,000 from the neighbourhood loan sharks for what is colloquially called ‘metre’ interest — she has to pay Rs 2,500 as monthly interest on every Rs 10,000 she borrows.
“Come,” said Sampath, “look at our houses, they are so small.” Indeed, homes in the area are so cramped that residents have no space to wash and stash their utensils in the kitchen, which is a mere extension of the living room, and must do such chores in the cramped bathroom instead.
When asked about the situation here at Perumbakkam,a TANGEDCO official who did not want to be named refused to answer questions on how the bill was calculated. “We will check their consumption patterns on a software that we have installed,” he said. “Any error, if found, will be rectified.” He could not say when, or how long the process would take.
Sampath has paid the bill, for fear that power would be cut if he didn’t. He is not the only one. Some others in the neighbourhood, who did not have the means to pay, have had their fuses removed. They live in darkness; sometimes, a kindly neighbour helps by jerry-rigging a wire so a light and a fan can be kept running.
“It has been six months since they took away the fuse,” says Kantha, 68, who sells dried fish. “We have no hope that the bills will come down.”
This project was supported by the National Geographic Society and the Out of Eden Walk Workshop 2018
Bill or Debt trap?
Residents of Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board tenements in Perumbakkam allege their electricity bills have shot up 10 times. Some have received bills that exceed Rs 10,000
Living in dark, cramped flats, they say it is impossible to rack up such high electricity bills
Residents have been forced to borrow from local loan sharks and sell jewellery
A TANGEDCO official refuses to answer questions on how the bill was calculated. But he says errors, if any, will be rectified, without specifying when or how