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Power struggles: Electricity and Colombo’s working class poor

Power struggles: Electricity and Colombo’s working class poor

10 Dec 2022 | By Meghal Perera

  • “After we finish paying the electricity bill we can’t lift our heads”

Just four months after a 75% increase in tariffs, Cabinet has reportedly granted approval for further tariff increases in January and June 2023. 

The idea of all consumers paying a cost-reflective tariff is gaining momentum and has been promoted by the Minister of Power and Energy, who prefers a cash transfer as a silver bullet to all the woes of low-income households. 

Such approaches continue to treat all electricity consumers as a homogenous group and assume that electricity consumption has no implications on livelihood, education, safety, and nutrition. 

Qualitative research conducted in low-income communities in Colombo shows that the effects of the August 2022 tariff hike on the working-class poor have been deep and far-reaching and the coping strategies they have adopted are as diverse as they are complex. 

The research also shows that monthly unit usage of working-class poor households in Colombo also exceeds what is considered the lowest usage group, thereby cutting them off from any offset benefits like cash transfers even though they do fall into a category that requires assistance. 

Cutting down consumption impossible 

Cutting back on electricity consumption is impossible when informal livelihoods are often dependent on domestic electricity connections. It is not uncommon for vendors to set up shops within their houses or in some cases run their domestic connections to a nearby stall for lighting.

Mala, a respondent from Wanathamulla, has started a small retail shop from her house and says she will continue to use her fridge because cool drinks are one of her best-selling items. Instead, she no longer uses her ceiling fan during the day. 

Less than a kilometre away, Seela has unplugged her fridge and washing machine and has switched from cooking on her rice cooker to using a gas stove again. She admits that the ceiling fan is switched on for most of the day and that she allows her two children to watch television. She points out that there is nothing else to occupy them – she doesn’t feel safe sending them to play outside.

It is important to note that the response to increased bills is not as simple as switching off the lights and conserving energy. Rather, these strategies are based on a personalised balancing act of livelihood, income, safety, and comfort, and they all invoke a cost in terms of time and energy. 

This cost is disproportionately borne by women as well, who are left to cope with and strategise to make ends meet with every changing aspect of the economic crisis. 

Common coping strategy

Another common coping strategy has been to simply not pay the electricity bill and then take a loan to pay off arrears once the threat of disconnection is made.

In October 2022, 15 houses in one apartment building in a Urban Development Authority (UDA)-highrise scheme in Dematagoda with arrears of over 30,000 were disconnected and households took loans and pawned jewellery to pay off a portion of the arrears and get reconnected.

For some households it has become an issue of choosing which bill to pay. For example, Kamala who lives in a UDA highrise in Wanathamulla, says: “My daughter gave me Rs. 10,000 for all the bills – electricity, water, rent. But I had to buy a gas cylinder for Rs. 5,400 and then after paying the electricity bill (Rs. 5,008), I had no money for anything else.”

She has accumulated over Rs. 80,000 worth of instalment payments for her UDA flat and notes that the building manager has threatened to cut her water supply if she does not pay off her arrears. For many low-income households utility arrears seem inevitable. 

Bills and legitimacy


While electricity bills rise, the physical size of paper bills has shrunk, with residents in some parts of Colombo now receiving smaller receipts instead of the usual electricity bills over the last three months. 

Reading an electricity bill and understanding unit costs, fixed charges, and interest on arrears is already a confusing task for many households, but this is made more complicated by the fact that the new bills are only in English. 

These new bills – which are more like “supermarket receipts,” as one interviewee put it – are not only smaller and flimsier, but more liable to wear and tear. Even in the course of a few weeks, the ink rubs off and key information is erased.

It is also important to note that for low-income households with insecure tenure, electricity bills are an important document that prove their place of residence. Electricity bills are notably used as proof when applying for entry to Government schools. During shortages, utility bills were required to prove residence to receive the few gas cylinders trickling into a particular locale. Any proposal to eliminate physical bills needs to reckon with legitimacy that these documents provide the urban poor. 

Injustice of increasing tariffs

During public consultations by the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) for the proposed tariff increases in August 2022, many voiced the injustice of increasing tariffs at a time when the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has been unable to provide people with a continuous supply of electricity.

Apart from a few weeks of abundant rain, daily power cuts of one to 2.5 hours have continued and are likely to worsen next year (1). Unlike middle class or luxury apartments, the UDA-run highrises do not have generators so daily power outages leave common and public areas of the complexes unlit.

Quality of life impacted

The outages also mean that the basic premise of apartment living – lifts – do not work for periods of two-and-a-half hours a day. Whether this is out of indifference or incompetence, this has inhibited the quality of life of all the inhabitants of such highrises, effectively constraining the movement of the elderly, disabled, young, and vulnerable.

A community leader in a highrise in Dematagoda notes that a majority of residents of the highrise are elderly and struggle with climbing up 14 storeys, while school children simply wait out the power cut when they return from school so as not to climb steps with heavy bags.

Beyond the inconveniences and discomfort caused by power outages, the absence of lighting in common areas at night also raises security concerns. While he has written to both the UDA and CEB requesting that a generator be provided to ensure the functioning of lifts and public lighting, he has funded small-scale solar-powered lighting for public areas.

While such stories of communities coming together to cope with the effects of the crisis are inspiring, they reveal a history of neglect and underfunding by the State. 

Preferential treatment

Colin McFarlane writes that “the inequalities woven through urban infrastructures are rarely more evident or visible than in times of crisis or rupture” and nearly a year of energy crises has shown this to be true. It has also raised questions of who deserves electricity and how the State should distribute or withdraw it. 

These questions are answered when religious institutes are granted relief from increased tariffs while low-income households forego meals to conserve energy. They are answered when the Government uses a $ 100 million Indian credit line to fix rooftop solar panels in Government institutions and religious places. 

While the Minister of Power and Energy is keen that all citizens pay a single tariff, the State does not subject all its citizens equally to power outages. Those who are not citizens receive even more preferential treatment as tourist zones in the Southern Province and Ella will be exempt from power cuts.

Rather than upholding energy justice principles, the electricity grid has created its own form of stratified citizenship which determines who receives power.

(The writer is a researcher at the Colombo Urban Lab)




 McFarlane, C. (2010). Infrastructure, interruption, and inequality: Urban life in the global south. Disrupted cities: When infrastructure fails, pg.139.




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