“TNEB officials could assess the charges”

: People accused of theft of energy under Section 135 of the Electricity Act 2003 cannot escape from their civil liability to pay the assessed charges, in exchange for restoration of power supply irrespective of the fact whether they choose to compound (forbear prosecution in exchange for money) the criminal offences or not, the Madras High Court Bench here has ruled.

Justice V. Ramasubramanian passed the ruling while disposing of a batch of 29 writ petitions filed by individuals who were accused of using domestic power connections for commercial purposes, tampering of meters or using agricultural service connections for non- agricultural purposes. They had challenged provisional as well as final assessment notifications issued by the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board.

The judge held that a Special Court trying the case under Section 135 could determine the criminal liability as well as civil liability of an accused who chooses to face criminal prosecution without compounding the offence. On the other hand, if the offence was compounded thereby ousting the jurisdiction of the Special Court then the TNEB officials could determine the civil liability and recover it as a sine quo non for restoration of power supply. The present petitioners had contended that the legislation draws a distinction between mere unauthorised use of electricity without a dishonest intention under Section 126 and intentional theft of energy under Section 135. There can be assessment and recovery of charges only in the case of Section 126 and not Section 135 which leads to criminal prosecution ending up either in acquittal or conviction, they claimed. Rejecting their contention, the judge pointed out that a look at Section 135(1) in isolation would give an impression as though there was no question of assessment under the Section though it empowers the Special Court trying the offence to order for imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years as well as imposition of fine to the extent of three to six times the financial gain made by the accused depending upon the quantum of power stolen.

However, the doubt regarding assessment in cases of theft got cleared after the introduction of proviso 1-A to Section 135 of the Act by way of an amendment in the year 2007. The new proviso made it mandatory for the authorities concerned to disconnect power supply immediately upon detection of theft of energy. They could also restore power supply if the accused deposits the assessed amount.