In today's Finshots, we talk about a midnight theft at Mumbai's Dadar and what may have motivated the thieves behind it.

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Now, on to today's story.

The Story

In the dead of night, a group of men walk quietly along the footpath connecting King Circle and Dadar TT. They survey the area for signs of human activity.


Satisfied, they quickly unload their tools — shovels, cable cutters, and spades — and begin their work. The only sound is the rhythmic digging, cutting through the silence of the night with a precision honed by repetition. Clearly, this isn’t their first time.

In just a few minutes, they uncover their prize. They quickly load it onto a getaway vehicle and disappear into the night.

Life resumes without suspicion the next day. The local Mumbaikars assume the usual municipal work is to blame for the dug-up path — a common sight in this area. However, when they discover no such activities were scheduled, the true nature of the midnight excavation comes to light. This was calculated theft.

But wait... what were the crooks looking for?

Hidden treasure?

Well, not quite. They were digging up cables. More specifically telecommunication cables. And on this occasion, they walked away with ₹7 lakhs worth of copper — the equivalent of a gold bar weighing 100 grams. If it weren’t for a few vigilant civilians and a complaint from MTNL (the telecom company whose cables were stolen), the heist may not even have drawn police attention. This could have been the perfect crime.

But alas! It wasn’t to be. The cops laid a trap for the enterprising thieves and apprehended them soon enough. Case closed? you ask. Well, not quite.

Sidenote: You can read more about the heist in this article from Hindustan Times.

Locking up a few thieves doesn’t mean there won’t be another midnight heist ever again. Telecommunication cables, power grids, transformers, grounding equipment, cell towers, railway signalling systems — this stuff is everywhere. And inside these public utility assets, you have metals like copper. Copper can be sold as scrap. The scrap is melted and then turned for a profit and it’s a thriving business opportunity.

The estimated loss due to cable theft in India is between $1.3 billion and $1.9 billion per year. And it’s only getting worse because copper prices are on the rise.

Copper is an excellent conductor of electricity and is used in a variety of applications. The demand is always strong. But this year has been pretty unusual. Copper prices hit a record high of $11,000 per metric ton on May 20, gaining 35% this year and many experts believe that this trend is likely to persist until at least 2026. No wonder thieves are targeting underground telecommunication cables.

But wait… Why are copper prices rising?

Well, the broad reason is this whole business with energy transition. Copper is used extensively in the coils of wind turbine generators. In solar photovoltaic (PV) systems (solar grids), copper is used in the conductive and grounding wires. It is an essential component in electric motors, batteries, and inverters. And it’s used in most kinds of energy storage devices. In short, Copper is indispensable if we are to move to a cleaner future. And since there is a certain degree of urgency surrounding this whole move, you can see why demand for copper is at an all-time high.

But there’s a supply issue as well. Take for instance Cobre Panama — a $10 billion mine that’s been out of operation since November. According to Bloomberg, the site produced nearly 1.5% of the world’s copper supply before it went idle. And it’s unlikely the supply is going to resume anytime soon. The government in Panama and the company running the mine have been unable to sort out their differences and they are now looking at closing the plant. So that was a big hit for the copper industry.

Then there is the Chinese collusion. Copper — the raw material was already hard to source last year. But then the smelters — the people that take the raw material and turn it into metal — have been scaling rapidly, hoping to capitalise on the clean energy opportunity. Unfortunately, they’ve been having to pay through the roof to source copper ore and they’ve been bleeding money. So some smelters in China got together and decided to collude (work together) and cut output to push the prices of the final metal even further. This they hoped would compensate for the rising raw material cost and shore up their margins.

And it did. The metal prices shot up and enterprising thieves in Mumbai suddenly got to work. The way the world works huh?

In any case, assuming that copper prices stay elevated, we have a big problem. Not just with thieves, because they’ll always be around. But with some of our ambitious ventures. India imports a lot of copper. Last year, the total bill saw a 20% jump — from ~₹22,000 crores to ~₹27,000 crores. And if we have to pay higher prices for copper, that also affects our aspirations to build electric vehicles and other renewable energy sources.

For now, we hope that the price rise is transient, and that new supply hits the global market soon enough. But if it doesn’t, we probably need to start looking at recycling efforts—gathering electrical, electronic waste, installing separating facilities and putting big money behind cleaning and purification operations. This could really help ease the burden.

We just hope that we do it with legitimately sourced copper. Not from some stolen MTNL cable.

Until then…

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