For 20 years and more the family had been running a small flour mill in a portion of their house. But when a Junior Engineer of the Electricity Board demanded that Neeraj Sharma coughs up ₹40,000 to him as illegal gratification, Sharma pleaded his helplessness. He couldn’t afford to pay so much.
The refusal turned out to be costly. He was slapped with a notice to pay a penalty of ₹5 lakhs for allegedly drawing more power than he was paying. An FIR was also lodged against him last year for electricity theft.
“We learnt of the penalty only when they turned up to collect it. The JE had threatened that he would ensure that we were forced to sell our house. If we had paid him the 40 thousand Rupees he wanted, we would not have been harassed but how could we have raised the amount,” wails the widow.
The father of three was advised by his brother, who is a constable with UP Police, to knock the doors of the High Court. And the High Court promptly stayed the penalty and wondered if the penalty was proportionate to the electricity allegedly stolen. How much electricity did a flour mill require? The court ordered the department to make a fresh assessment.
The ‘stay’ further infuriated the officials and the JE. And earlier this month when Sharma was taking his mother to a hospital for treatment, they allegedly accosted him and snatched twenty thousand Rupees that he had collected for his mother’s treatment.
His brother, Dheeraj, once again advised him to lodge an FIR but the police turned a deaf ear to the complaint. In desperation Sharma wrote letters to the President of India and to the UP Chief Minister. Earlier this week he knocked on the doors of newspapers in Muzaffarnagar and pleaded for some relief. If the harassment didn’t stop, he would have no option but to kill himself.
Nobody apparently took him seriously. At his wit’s end, he consumed poison at the Bijnore DM’s office on Tuesday and breathed his last.
Recalls his distraught brother Dheeraj, “My brother had not stolen electricity. His only fault was that he had refused to pay the amount demanded by the Junior Engineer. The JE decided to teach him a lesson and cooked up a story.” In support, he produced a recorded conversation in which an official can be heard threatening and browbeating him.
Shocked neighbours confirmed that Sharma was harassed repeatedly by the departmental staff who would turn up at odd hours and insist that he pay up. They wonder why a small fry like Sharma was picked up when much bigger sharks had been stealing electricity in Muzaffarnagar without any action taken against them.
Councillor Sartaj Saifi and Samajwadi Party leader Chandan Chauhan alleged that a section of the officials had formed a syndicate and were busy extorting money.
After the suicide, the Junior Engineer has been suspended. And after Priyanka Gandhi Vadra voiced her anguish in a tweet and questioned what was happening in Uttar Pradesh, police called Dheeraj, offered him tea and snacks and politely pleaded with him to ‘settle’ the matter.