That the National Assembly unanimously passed an amendment to the Nepra Act which empowers the power regulator to initiate cases against, fine and even recommend imprisonment of officials found to be overbilling consumers shows that the government is finally waking up to a long-standing problem. Unfortunately that is the only good thing to be said about this amendment. It centralises power away from distribution companies to Nepra to such an extent that even implementing it will take many months. Instead of the current system, where complaints are registered with sub-divisional officers or executive engineers at distribution companies, now Nepra will be the sole authority for dealing with billing disputes. In practice, this means Nepra will have to speedily set up a new parallel infrastructure throughout the country. It will need to establish offices in every district and sub-district of the country and hire qualified staff to deal with complaints. There is no reason to believe Nepra will be any less prone to pressure than the distribution companies. The largest defaulters in the country happen to be government departments and industries, all of whom use their political clout to evade paying their bills. The difference is made up by unscrupulous distribution companies who overcharge others.
For Nepra to succeed where the distribution companies have failed, it will have to take on the defaulters. Whether it has the appetite to do so is an open question since it has tended to side with the powerful in the past. In February, after pressure from the government, it overturned a decision it had taken two years previously holding K-Electric responsible for overbilling consumers. The accusation against K-Electric at the time was that it was deliberately overcharging users to maximise revenue, something the distribution companies have also been accused of doing. Is there any reason to believe that Nepra will be any less indulgent towards them? The matter is further complicated by the tussle over the future of Nepra. The government had issued a notification earlier this year placing administrative control of Nepra under the cabinet division. That notification has currently been suspended by the Lahore High Court but should it eventually be restored, Nepra’s ability to act independently of government pressure will be eroded. This is why, while it is a relief that the new Minister for Power Awais Leghari has become the first minister to acknowledge the seriousness of the overbilling problem, his proposed solution may not end up being much of a panacea at all.