Loha, a 28-year-old electrician lives in Kanpur, a city of 3 million, which suffers from power cuts that last up to 15 hours. Renowned for his prowess in stealing electricity, he is a robin-hood figure who steals electricity and charges the rich to provide free connections in impoverished neighbourhoods. In the face of day-long power-cuts, he runs illegal connections from one neighborhood to another so that homes, factories and businesses can function normally.
On the other hand, Ritu, the first female chief and new to the Kanpur Electricity Supply Company (KESCO), is working on a mission to eliminate powerlessness. Electricity-theft accounts for nearly 30 percent of all losses to KESCO, aggravating the crisis, and Ritu has constituted a new task force to tackle this miscreancy. KESCO organizes an annual cleanup of all illegal electricity connections. Officials together with police forces try and disconnect all the illegal connections that Loha and other electricians like him, set up.
Ritu’s efforts to clean up the city and reach out to consumers to chalk a new path forward for Kanpur meets with success. However, with the Indian summer settling in the electricity problem takes on crisis proportions, with dire implications on the citizen’s lives and livelihoods. People take to the streets in demonstrations and sometimes resort to violence. A rising politician takes advantage of the people’s anger.
A picture emerges of a modern dystopia encompassing urban decay and desperation in the lack of electricity. Underlying the localized crisis in Kanpur is the glaring energy poverty in India, where a third of the population is bereft of this basic need, and the rest grapple with power-cuts that dictate their own terms. Powerless puts a lens to an unexplored narrative of one of the world’s fastest developing economies.
The lack of energy has a devastating impact on livelihoods, education and health, and overcoming it has been identified by the United Nations as the main barrier to social and economic development.
Kanpur, India, is at the center of the crisis. Home to 3 million people, the city suffers from power cuts that last up to 12-15 hours a day. Lack of sufficient electricity has turned this once booming industrial center into an urban nightmare.
Kanpur, however, remains the leather capital of India, supplying western brands such as Gucci, Levis and Mango. It is also one of the most polluted cities in the world. More than 400 leather tanneries operate in Kanpur, and the industry suffers heavily from power cuts. The industry relies heavily on diesel based electricity generators to meet its energy needs. Not only is the exhaust from the thousands of generators choking the city, the industry is also poisoning the groundwater in the area.
Further, the deep impact of lack of electricity on public life is apparent. Loss of livelihoods, inhuman living conditions and a public health crisis in the city which has the highest rate of TB in India, is directly or indirectly related to the energy crisis. In this situation, those who cannot afford the prohibitive prices of diesel try and steal electricity. Power-stealing is a regular feature of life in Kanpur. This is a dangerous activity, with hazardous risks, as it requires tampering with electric cables and transformers carrying high wattage.
Kanpur is a tragic story of a once proud city brought to it's knees. Where phalanxes of workers would once march to hulking factories to the sound of mill sirens, there exists shells of glorious past. And people struggling to eke out a living.
“I was born in Chamanganj, Kanpur. My parents left the neighbourhood to seek a future elsewhere. I have therefore had the privilege of living, studying and working in other parts of the world.
My memories of Kanpur are predominantly of long, uncomfortable, water-less summers, spent without electricity. As a child I remember relatives facing unemployment due to the closure of the nationalized mills in Kanpur. I remember how in the following years, the power situation worsened. Livelihoods were at stake, and there were always stories about relatives and friends of the family, losing their incomes and businesses.
In many ways Loha Singh is a reflection of the city’s past. The only livelihood that he has available to him is stealing electricity, a highly dangerous, life threatening task. Yet he does it with a panache and grit that is vey Kanpuria.
Upon returning to Kanpur many years later I found that the situation remains largely unchanged. A city and it’s people look back with bitter nostalgia and a sense of loss towards its glorious past and uncertain future.
This is a story not only about electricity, but a political reality that millions in India and billions worldwide live with”
“In many ways the story that compelled Fahad to film in Kanpur, is a story of most small towns in the country. Having lived all my life in another industrial town – Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, I am no stranger to day-long power cuts and to how they govern peoples’ lives.
Ritu’s reformist instinct and struggle to bring change to the city is pitted against Loha’s wit and ingenuity; the one a thief, the other a cop. ?However, ultimately they’re both fighting for a common cause – to light up lives.
In many ways Kanpur is at a frontline of globalization, and is a microcosm that showcases the infrastructure problems that India faces today. Kanpur is as much as a character in this film as it’s main protagonists.”
Energy is taken for granted in developed nations, however many in India spend entire lifetimes without switching on an electric device. The energy crisis in India also finds resonance in global issues such as climate change and corporate social responsibility. While there are villages in India that have no electricity whatsoever, in Kanpur one can distinctly visualize how the lack of energy leads people to a cycle of poverty.