While the narrative around power crisis has been revolving round shortages — non-recovery of dues, circular debt and inefficiencies — widespread corruption, over-billing and chaotic affairs of utility companies have seldom figured in the official and public discourse.
All this happens when public complaints of over-billing and excessive parking of electricity units in consumer bills against utilities are rising. The regulators are pointing out corruption by, and underperformance in, power companies and even ministers remain perplexed over what is actually happening in the power sector.
According to an internal report of the water and power ministry, the distribution companies were charging 35 extra days to consumers every year through wrong cycle of meter reading and billing, forcing the common people to pay for over 13 months instead of 12 months of a year. This, apparently, takes place with full knowledge and consent of the management who try to camouflage their system losses.
This increases the cost of electricity raises the circular debt and that, in turn, again increases the tariff in a on- going vicious cycle. “Further, the power system is afflicted with corruption and inefficiency”, according to annual report (2011-12) of the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority recently submitted to the Council of Common Interest (CCI).
As member of the CCI, the Sindh government has a record of disputing electricity bills and, in some cases, has gone to the extent of getting relief through an independent arbitration. In the process, over Rs75 billion remains outstanding against the province where 16,000 out of 28,000 public sector consumers are reported to have connections without meters, if distribution companies are to be believed.
In recent months, two other CCI members — Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — have followed suit by questioning the billing and meter reading process of the distribution companies. Unresolved in the absence of any credible mechanism, such disputed amounts are ultimately declared by power companies as trade debts and unrecoverable and hence passed on to the federal government for parking as circular debt.
Complaints of over-billing and overcharging by common consumers are widespread to such an extent that the ministry of water and power had to issue a public notice early this month advising the electricity consumers “to compare their monthly bills immediately on receipt with their meter readings in order to check over-billing”. The problem with the proposed comparison is practically serious. The digital meters, mostly having time-of-day tariff mechanism now, are illegible to most of the consumers, even the well-educated ones. The power ministry, however, believes that although such an exercise may not bear 100 per cent results, it could be helpful in reducing the chances of errors in the future.
The step was taken following a number of complaints that later led to a law and order problem. Last month, thousands of farmers in Arifawala took out a rally against over-billing by Multan Electric Supply Company. They alleged that Mepco had had issued them inflated bills.
Similarly, leaders of 15 industries and trade association including textile manufacturers, industrialists, printing mill owners, exporters, power loom owners, hosiery manufacturers, sizing industry, foundry and engineering groups on November 4 criticised the Faisalabad Electric Supply Company for over-billing, wrong preparation of bills and overcharging the consumers.
President Faisalabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FCCI) Mian Zahid Aslam accused FESCO of indulging in frequent over-billing and overcharging not only to business, trade and industry but also to domestic consumers, forcing consumers to spend most of their time in getting their bills corrected. Consumers and small industry owners waste so and lose their daily earnings in the process.
That’s not all. Nepra is already seized with a complaint against Karachi Electric Supply Company for an alleged over-billing exercise under which it had billed eight million extra-units to consumers in September this year. The privatised utility has been issued a 14-day notice to come up with its explanation.