The good, the bad, and the ugly (May 18, 2014): electricity theft edition

JPS shocked Jamaican politicians out of their complacent acceptance and encouragement of people stealing electricity by cutting off some Kingston communities that had over 70 percent of users who did not pay. Notably, these were in clearly identified ‘garrison’ communities.

The payers howled. The nonpayers whistled along. The Office of Utilities Regulation told JPS to lighten up and give the people back the full current. A new government-led committee will look at ways to combat electricity theft. Everyone can chip in with ideas. I will offer one.

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JPS has shown it's serious. How about the politicians? (Courtesy of The Gleaner.)

The desire is to do two things. First, to let everyone have access to a basic service of electric light; that’s a social minimum in current times. Second, to encourage a reasonable payment for services used and continued regular payment. So, identify each nonpayer and give that customer one week to do two things: make a minimum payment, and remove all electrical appliances. The first action helps JPS’s accounts; the second reduces the demands on the system. JPS said nonpayers use three times as much power as payers. That is a clear sign of the incentive from ‘freeness’.

After one week, if no payment has been received, JPS should disconnect the customer, and get the police to serve an arrest warrant. They should also be given emergency power to confiscate appliances, which could be auctioned or sold to help cover outstanding payment obligations.

The OUR should point out if any of this runs counter to JPS’s licence and suggest changes that keep the essential purposes but sit correctly.

I suspect this set of actions will lead to a large outcry. However, politicians should help by explaining to constituents what will happen and why. They should also explain that all of this is legal and necessary. If necessary, the MP for the areas should accompany JPS staff when identifying nonpayers and be on hand to offer to discuss any real financial problems.

The politicians can help those who claim they cannot pay by pointing to legal financial options, or facilitating access to government support.

I forsee some social turmoil. How much, will depend on political will.

If politicians are serious in their support of customers being honest and showing good civic behaviour, they will move fast to get this programme rolling. Any person who believes he or she CANNOT pay, must show that their use is an absolute minimum. They must also show they have no means to pay.

We need to end some serious hypocrisy. ‘Can’t pay’ must be made clear from ‘won’t pay’. People with appliances can pay, but have chosen to spend on other things. If there are genuine cases of need, identify them and deal with them accordingly. Theft cannot be the accepted solution. Otherwise, we cannot condemn that crime anywhere.

Nonpaying customers should all be treated the same: the threat of disconnection has to be real and applied. Those who do not pay cannot have privilege over payers; that’s nonsense. Anyone who is not conservative with usage cannot claim poverty.

This is the tip of a socio-economic iceberg of ‘excessive negligence’. If politicians want to help people socially, then do so by legislation or out of their own pockets. Enacting it through theft and misappropriation has to stop. Stop picking citizens’ pockets! Everyone knows what’s been going on so no need to keep up pretences.

Jamaica is…

I’m an avid sports fan, and I woke early, as I have a lot in recent weeks, to watch top-level international athletes. This time, it is Winter Olympians in Sochi, Russia. Last month, it was Australian Open tennis. The early hours of the day are great times for thinking.

Jamaica is often synonymous with coolness. But, like many places, reality is otherwise. I find it hard to stop making comparisons between Jamaica and Guinea–an extremely poor west African country, where I lived and worked for almost four years. It’s more about carrying on with dogged determination in a country that has so much natural charm and beauty, which compensate for the many harsh realities of daily life.

Jamaica is categorised is a ‘middle income’ country. The reality is that we’ve a strong mix of highly sophisticated features in our lives, but also some abject poverty that is near the lowest of the lows. We also have infrastructure that is barely able to function.

This morning, I wanted to have some water. I turned on the taps: nothing. Water lock-offs are part of life. Many people have near permanent ‘lock off’, in that they have no regular running water. Other areas have no water during periods to repair leaks. I was surprised, but not shocked. I have large bottles of water. That may not be the case for others, in rural or urban areas. Fetching water from a well or river is part of daily life in some communities. Water from standpipes is the norm in some other areas. Collect what you need, in buckets or pails, and haul it home. In some places, that still what children have to do before heading to school each day. No time lolling around in front of a television or video game. They may have to tend to some animals, too.

A debate is raging over the approval of a new foreign investor to develop a new 360 megawatt power station in Jamaica. This concerns information that will be made available to the population about the accepted investor. Lots of transparency and governance issues are involved. But, the bottom line is that the country needs more generating and distribution of electricity. Many people cannot afford electricity and get it by using ‘throw ups’. Other people who can afford electricity also steal it: saving money, is saving. Life has moved towards the expectancy of many modern appliances, but for many it’s just about the basic need for light. Electricity is very expensive (about 40 US cents a kilowatt hour). I try to do what I can to curb our costs: I turn off lights and urge members of my household to use solar power when at all possible. It’s not easy, not least from habits that are born from convenience. However, something is wrong with our systems. I noted how much lower our bills became during the relatively cool recent months, but also because I’d ‘negotiated’ the turning off of air conditioners. However, a friend and I had a discussion about this last week: he’d given up trying to save, after cutting off the air conditioners in his house, but the bill barely changing. Either someone was tapping into his source, or his meter was dicky.

When I was growing up in Jamaica in the late-1950s, my grandparents home in deep rural St. Elizabeth had no electricity. I could not see an electricity pole anywhere. We lived by sunlight and kerosene lamp. That was in the time before television in most homes. Of course, we couldn’t have a radio, either. News was by word of mouth or by newspapers. News travelled slowly, not at today’s near instantaneous speeds. Life seemed slower. Rural Jamaica still has much of that slowness, best shown in the way people give directions: landmarks are more used, including the homes of families, which don’t change much. “Go up so. Turn at Mas’ Cambell’s house–the red one. Look for the mango tree down so. Then pass that and head toward the river…” How long this trip will take is not a matter of interest. “You’ll soon reach.” Take any fruit or food offered, because it could be a long walk, if on foot.

Throw-up wires to steal electricity in Jamaica
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Cows grazing on roadside verge between Kingston and Spanish Town

That slowness of life is still part of Jamaica. Even though I now live in the capital, it’s not all high-rise buildings, roads filled with cars and people, large homes with manicured gardens. Just on the edge of Kingston, life is lived at the pace of a deep rural community. Even in the city, trappings of rural life abound. I live with goats, and occasionally pigs or cows, being a feature of my surroundings. It’s nothing odd to see cows tethered on the roadside, grazing for the day.

Jamaica has a large population by Caribbean standards, but is still a small place. People tend to notice who they are with. I went to the bank yesterday afternoon. Banking is a slow process, even though we’ve seen much automation. As I stood in line, two men hailed each other. “Where’ve you been, man?” one asked. “In the country. I don’t come to Kingston much,” came the reply. Both men looked older than me, and I presumed were retired. As I noted above, country-life is slower paced and many people like getting back to that kind of environment.

However, when I got to the front, I joked that it was morning when I came into the bank, but it was now mid-afternoon. The cashier smiled with a wrinkled brow, then immediately asked “Do you remember me?” I took another look at her face. It seemed vaguely familiar. “We were at the swim meet on Saturday,” she added. She was right. Just one meeting, albeit over an hour or so, and my face was in her memory bank. We talked about how our children had performed, and parted, looking forward to the next swim meet. All of a sudden, my visit to the bank had taken on a different feel. I parted with my wad of cash–another aspect of how life has to be led. I could now pay a series of service workers whom I would meet in coming days. Cash is king.

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Young athletes waiting at National Stadium, ahead of Camperdown Classic

Her mentioning the swim event reminded me that at the Stadium complex this past weekend, we’d seen the place used to the maximum. Swimming at the Aquatic Centre, over three days. Track and field going on in the main stadium during Saturday–Camperdown Classic. Netball matches going on at the adjacent hard courts. Jamaica’s youths were out in full force. They are not all feckless, sex-crazed, good-for-nothing individuals. Here was a hard core of hard-working people, looking to enjoy themselves and show off their skills. The young runners and jumpers would be alongside some of their idols, now international stars, who had begun doing similar events when at school. The netballers and runners were mainly teenagers, and we never saw one arrive in a car; on foot, by bus, they had made their way. The swimmers, mainly prep or primary schoolers, were the ones who’d arrived by car.

But, big events mean big sales in Jamaica. When my daughter and I arrived at the pool on Saturday morning, at about 7am, we noticed that the vendors were just setting up their stands. Food of all sorts. Trinkets of many types. A chance to make money during the next 12 hours. More than a day’s work and maybe more than a day’s earnings. It was a bumper weekend, because on the Friday night a concert had been taking place adjacent to the stadium. No fancy concession stands with name burgers or pizza. Soup. Rice and peas. Jerk food. Drinks. Staples of the Jamaican road diner.

This story has a new page turning every day.

Jamaica is a constant bag of fun and frustrations.