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March 9, 2018

Inflated bills


March 9, 2018

Not only are power consumers being charged exorbitant rates to keep a flailing power sector afloat, there have been reports that electricity distribution companies continue to overcharge them to the tune of Rs30 billion per year. The issue of systematic overbilling has been highlighted repeatedly but little has been actually done to combat the problem. Overbilling is a systemic practice should not be hard to handle, if it is accidental and not deliberate. All it should require is for meter readers to take accurate readings – and even if they are unable to check each meter individually, there are reasonably accurate ways of predicting electricity consumption based on past usage. In January alone, consumers paid Rs1.97 billion more than required. On average, the percentage of overcharged units per bill is said to exceed ten percent. What is shocking is how little outrage this practice has generated. Consumers continue to be blamed – and criminalised – for not paying electricity bills. On the other side, electricity companies continue to operate without civil or criminal liability.

If the government is committed to stomping out the practice, the first starting point should be fines for distribution companies for gross malpractice. These fines should exceed the overbilled amounts and be returned to consumers in the form of subsidies. The excuse that the power sector is already in turmoil cannot be used, and consumers cannot be forced to pay tariff above what Nepra has approved nor can they be forced to pay for electricity units that they have not consumed. There is a need for an independent inquiry into the issue. Some have speculated that Discos may be doing this to show a reduction in distribution losses, which actually stand at around 19 percent. There are reports that the government is planning to criminalise overbilling by Disco officials. This is the right approach but the problem is that distribution companies will continue to rely on overbilling when the government remains focused on revenue collection, instead of systemic reform in the power sector. A Nepra report in 2015 confirmed that 70 percent of ToU meters are either outdated or out-timed based while around 35 percent of consumers never have their meters read. This is an unacceptable situation.

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