Wed | Oct 4, 2023

Wean power thieves off viewing JPS as welfare – Clayton

Published:Monday | October 11, 2021 | 12:09 AMRuddy Mathison/Gleaner Writer
Professor Anthony Clayton: “Many children are raised in households where theft is normal, and a means to survive.”
Professor Anthony Clayton: “Many children are raised in households where theft is normal, and a means to survive.”

The incidence of electricity theft among mainly poor inner-city and squatter communities has been diagnosed as a deep cultural crisis that cannot be addressed by technology alone.

That is the view of Anthony Clayton, Alcan professor of Caribbean sustainable development at The University of the West Indies.

Beyond the estimated 180,000 electricity thieves, Jamaica’s squatter population of around 900,000 serves as a recruitment pool for persons extracting power from the Jamaica Public Service Company’s (JPS) grid.

Perhaps nowhere is the problem more endemic than in the St John’s Road community of St Catherine, where 96 per cent of power is illegally abstracted. Offenders have consistently breached the anti-theft infrastructure and found ways of tapping power supply through low-technology throw-ups.

“What this means is that many children are raised in households where theft is normal, and a means to survive, and if you hear them talking about it, they talk about it as a form of welfare,” Clayton said at a recent Gleaner Editors’ Forum.

He said the misconceived cultural norm was at odds, in some cases, with the narrative of poverty because some householders operated air conditioning, refrigerators, and other high-energy electrical appliances.

The estimated US$200 million in annual losses to electricity theft starves the JPS of the financial resources to modernise the grid for efficiency and move decisively to renewable energy, which would drive down the cost of electricity, said Clayton.

St Andrew South West Member of Parliament Dr Angela Brown Burke, while agreeing that the problem is cultural, noted that intergenerational poverty was at the heart of the problem.

“We have to deal with the underlying conditions that are causing these behaviours. There are issues like where they live. Many of them don’t have papers to the property they occupy to even approach JPS for a connection,” she said.

Burke, a former mayor of Kingston, has blamed the Government for giving a pass to the JPS by not ensuring that the company is producing as cheaply as possible.

Former Energy Minister Andrew Wheatley acknowledged that affordability was a core factor fuelling the scourge. He said that he has been at the forefront of assisting the people of St John’s Road, a section of which falls within his St Catherine South Central constituency.

“We have started a public education campaign to sensitise members of the community. We have engaged them in a particular programme to wire their houses and to get certification ... to take to the JPS for legal connection,” Wheatley disclosed.

Those appeals, however, appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

The destruction of seven transformers on St John’s Road has cost the company approximately $1.9 million. Power thieves have been labelled the culprits. Transformers typically have a lifetime of 15 to 20 years.

Winsome Callum, director of corporate communications at JPS, said that legislators and the security forces must bear some of the blame for the perpetuation of power theft.

“Nowhere in the world has this problem been successfully dealt with without political leadership. Nowhere in the world has the utility company been expected to act as police, judiciary, social-change agent, technical grid operator, etc, in dealing with this crime problem,” she said.