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It’s more than a weak pun to say the JPS (Jamaica Public Service) is a lightning rod for unpopular opinion. The national electricity company is in a complicated position. It is the national power agency, which seems powerless to get its customers to pay for the service they use. Jamaicans know that many people steal electricity. The problem is well-known in the Kingston-St Andrew area, but exists on a broad scale in St. Catherine and St. James. The figures for losses are enormous–US$125 million was one I read yesterday. Thefts are the main reason for JPS’s financial losses.

The company says it wants non-payers to ‘get on the grid’ and start to pay, like decent, honest citizens. It has plans to let these potential new customers ease their way into paying, including flat rate, prepaid meters, and staged payments. It has tried to deter theft by taking down illegal connections (‘throw ups’), arrests, and disconnections. None work in a large-scale way. So, JPS is trying the equivalent of the battering ram: it is disconnecting whole communities, where theft exists on a widescale, depriving even regular paying customers of the service for which they have paid. In a statement issued yesterday, it explains that JPS is cutting the number of hours that power is provided to communities where more than 70% of the electricity is stolen’. JPS added ‘in recognition of its obligation to serve paying customers in the affected communities, it will make an effort to provide electricity for not less than 12 hours per day, and will remain sensitive to the safety concerns of the residents. JPS is also making every effort to minimize the impact on the businesses, hospitals, and schools in these communities’.

Result? In the immediate days after this began, a firestorm of criticism and complaints. One lawyer has suggested that this is illegal and that paying customers should sue. I think that is a good idea, at least to establish in law what is correct and avoid setting a precedent that should not be there.

Other options exist, but won’t work near-term, such as tamper-proof lines, underground wiring, diversifying energy supply to make the value of theft lower.

The regulatory body, the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) is treating JPS’s action with the ‘highest priority’ and has requested a meeting with JPS today. OUR asked JPS to provide information such as the number of paying residential and commercial customers in the affected areas, and on the level of damage done to JPS equipment as a result of electricity theft in these communities.

JPS says it has tried ‘everything’: ‘The Company also has more than 200 employees working to reduce lossesIn 2013, JPS removed over 197,000 illegal lines, carried out more than 113,000 account audits and meter investigations, and facilitated the arrest of more than 1200 persons for theft of electricity. The company also installed over 7,600 Residential Automated Metering Infrastructure (RAMI) meters, but most of the potential customers targeted have not signed up for legal service.

To say that JPS is caught in the horns of a dilemma is an understatement. Workable solutions are few, if the non-payers do not want to pay. It’s a matter of civics. Can’t pay, won’t pay, is the situation for many. But, we know that many who can pay don’t pay, including businesses. As one commentator said on the radio last evening, which company can afford to have light burning all night and air conditioning running all day with doors open? Duh! At least have a thorough check of such establishments. But, the problem is that this needs a fine-tooth comb approach to almost every household.

Dare I say it again, people are responding to the risk:reward and the incentives: it is easier to steal and get away with it, and it’s also very cost-effective for the thieves. The payers suffer by having to bear higher costs than needed, and now have the double ignominy of losing service for which they pay. Maybe, payers need to apply the reverse logic and put themselves on the same footing as the thieves and stop paying, at least until they are forced to, and then only on the nicest of terms. It’s really foolish to keep acting in the right manner and getting the worst outcomes. That’s a potential problem for JPS. 

Another option is the naming and shaming. JPS says it knows the communities that are most problematic. Is it a big step to then name the households? One reaction may be that the people concerned don’t care about public criticism, otherwise they would change. I’m not sure about that. A backlash may occur, and the areas rise in protest. But, how long would protests last by people whom the society know are doing wrong and costing most of us? It’s a thought. Perhaps, the way to go is to work on clearly identifying those who are stealing and putting direct pressure on them at least to register to pay. Thinking quickly, once identified, the household should not be able to benefit from other public services until they are at least registered to pay for electricity. (They may also be stealing those, but let’s be generous in thought, at least initially.) In our failed economy, the losses of public service (including things like education) may not seem significant. I can’t judge in abstract. But, in the end, life has to be made more uncomfortable for those who steal at least until they stop.

JPS is clearly at its wits end. Electricity theft is not a new problem and not one that affects Jamaica alone. Many developing countries live with the same problem, created in part by poverty, but also by a world that has made access to electricity almost a necessity. In India, network losses run to about 30 percent.

I would hope that Kelly Tomblin, JPS’s CEO, and her staff have used all the expertise available at institutions such as the World Bank to come up with solutions. The real solution is changes in personal behaviour and attitudes. That needs to happen fast, but seems unlikely unless those who steal receive a jolt. That’s another crude solution–pushing through too much current so that many appliances are damaged; but again, the payers suffer, too. Unless JPS can remove the ‘shield’ provided by paying customers surrounding the thieves, it seems they are lost. Until people accept their obligations to pay, JPS is doubly lost.