Witness - Powerless in India
From: Witness

Powerless in India

An Indian electrician risks life and limb to siphon off electricity for poor areas in a city crippled by power cuts.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available for online viewing.

Loha Singh, a 28-year-old electrician in the Indian city of Kanpur, is renowned for his expertise in stealing electricity. Some see him as a modern-day Robin Hood, siphoning off electricity from the grid and providing free connections in poor neighbourhoods. In the face of crippling power cuts, his skills enable homes, factories and businesses to function normally.

However, things may be about to change. The city’s electricity supply company has a new boss, Ritu Maheshwari, who is determined to clamp down on theft. It costs billions of rupees in lost revenue and holds back vital infrastructure upgrades. She dispatches raid teams to catch electricity thieves, dole out fines and cut off illegal connections.

Although initially successful, the clean-up efforts prompt protests and violence in neighbourhoods where people feel unjustly targeted. Adding to Maheshwari’s problems, a local politician rallies against her during a summer of acute electricity shortages. Will she succeed in changing the system or will her campaign be derailed?

Powerless provides a fascinating insight into the politics of electricity in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, where the need for power is rising rapidly and around 300 million people lack access altogether.


By Fahad Mustafa

We spent about two years in Kanpur shooting this film. Our crew was a bit of novelty on the streets – people in Kanpur had not seen a film crew, nor, for that matter, foreign people. This meant that there would frequently be mobs of people demanding to see the “star” of the shoot, and they would not believe that we were documenting the life of Loha Singh.

Trust was a major issue in the beginning, especially in neighbourhoods where electricity theft was rife.

As we spent more time in Kanpur, however, people understood that we did not mean harm, and opened up to us. Most told us how they were “forced” to steal electricity, as the state authorities typically ignored the poorer neighbourhoods. Similarly, the viewpoint of Kanpur Electricity Supply Company [KESCO] is often misunderstood and the engineers and officers at the company were only too happy to show us the challenges that they faced in the battle to supply electicity once they became acquainted with us.

Through the eyes of Loha Singh and Ritu, we got a very nuanced picture of an overwhelming and very visible crisis.

In many ways electricity was a metaphor or a meter for underlying social and economic problems. It was a situation where those who had the means and the resources had “power”. Those who did not had to rely on people such as Loha Singh.

There is growing discussion and debate in India and in the world on how to combat poverty. Most of what we saw in Kanpur highlighted how complex and drawn out this fight is going to be, given the entrenched and pervasive nature of poverty.

The ingenuity and the will of people, however, to bring about positive change was extremely heartening. In the worst of situations, people cooperated to find ways to escape the vicious cycle.