Electricity bills consume a major chunk of household incomes in Pakistan. With the passage of time, this commodity has become rare and its prices gone out of control mainly due to the country’s overwhelming dependence on expensive fuel for its production.
There are other reasons for this price hike as well, including removal of subsidies for consumers using more than a specific number of electricity units, line losses, failure in recovery of arrears from government departments, and so on. The distribution companies have been found excessively billing the consumers who regularly pay their electricity bills.
Though this has been going on for long, it was only during the last couple of months that the government took notice of this “injustice” to the public. It ordered inquiries into what it called a systematic and structural mechanism to rob people of money they did not owe through over-billing and make the PML-N government unpopular at a time when PTI and PAT were running smear campaigns against it.
Quite unexpectedly, the government confessed that excessive over-billing was done, which according to some estimates, robbed the people of around Rs70 billion. It has also accepted the allegation that consumers were sent inflated bills and charged far more electricity units than they had actually consumed.
The Prime Minister’s Inspection Team, which was assigned the task of looking into reasons for this fiasco, observed that the distribution companies had installed new meters that would run 30 to 35 per cent faster than the old ones. The team expressed its apprehension that the distribution companies might have intentionally asked manufacturers to supply fast meters.
The government has initiated inquiries and wants to fix responsibilities and compensate consumers. Prime Minister has rejected reports produced by two audit companies hired for this purpose and snubbed them for putting the estimate about the over-billed amount at a mere Rs2 billion.
Will the government be able to fix things for good or would it be a cosmetic measure? Analysts say though the government may earn some applause by taking popular decisions, it will not be able to put things in place without improving the power sector governance, producing cheaper electricity, recovering outstanding dues, and checking corruption.
A senior bureaucrat in the federal ministry requests to remain anonymous on this issue. His concern is that he could not defend certain government decisions at a time when the chief executive of the country had himself become a complainant. Besides, he said, he “could not openly point out the inherent flaws in the system and the realities on ground.”
He tells TNS that they were waiting to know about the findings of the six-member committee constituted by the PM to probe into the matter. But its meeting could not be held as Finance Minister Ishaq Dar was in Dubai to attend a meeting with IMF.
The official says the committee is determining whether the reduction of Rs65 billion in circular debt was actually the result of recovery of arrears or was it because of over-billing done by the power and energy ministry just to show its efficiency?
He says “revision of electricity prices, removal of slab benefits, more than normal electricity supply during the month of July and August (during Ramazan and sit-ins in Islamabad) are also a few reasons for issuance of inflated bills.”
But the maximum impact, he says, “was due to wrong meter readings, which pushed the number of units consumed beyond the threshold under the slab system. The meter readers intentionally added a few units just to change the slab applicable on consumers,” he adds.
The official says the modus operandi used as per inquiry reports is that “meter readers mention additional units in their records and deliver the bills a day before the due date or on that date. By that time the said number of units are consumed or the difference is reduced,” he adds.
Anis-ul-Haq, Secretary, All Pakistan Textile Mills’ Association (APTMA) tells that the industry is also affected by over-billing and it has raised its concerns. “The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are there but these are rarely followed.” Explaining his point, he says “meter readers who record readings at industrial units provide properly filled cards to the staff present there but when the bills are received the readings are on the higher side.
On the current fiasco, he says, “the industry has always asked the government should give priority to the industry but it prefers domestic sector where line losses are too high. The industry, which depends on independent feeders, is far more efficient and line losses are hardly one to two per cent. I think it is time the government rethinks its priorities,” he adds.
Muhammad Arshad, a resident of Lahore, tells TNS that people have become aware of these tactics now. He says he is sure that Lahore Electric Supply Company (Lesco) is going to give another bill shock to consumers with over-reading and over-billing. He says he checked his bill online on Lesco’s website and then checked his meter. The difference in the reading on the meter and the one uploaded on the website bill is about 35 per cent. He says by the time the bill arrives this difference will be reduced further.
An official in an electricity distribution company disputes claims that new meters are fast. “These may be faster than the old meters, which have become 30 to 35 per cent slow due to overuse, rusting and wear and tear.” He says the staff of electricity providing companies is blamed for corruption without realising the fact that they cannot work independently due to the political influence in their areas.
He says XENs, SDOs, linemen, and meter readers are appointed on the recommendations of politicians and in case they take action against electricity thieves belonging to the ruling parties they have to face the music.
On the practice of fictitious readings by meter readers, he says, “unfortunately there is a ban on recruitment of new meter readers for the last 10 years and the companies have to depend on the ones they have.” Sometimes, he says, “it is impossible for the meter readers to visit every area and take reading. So what they do is they record estimated readings based on the readings for the same month during the previous year. However, he agrees that the readings on electricity bills during the last couple of months were exorbitant.
“Things cannot improve unless line losses are minimised. This will not happen till the cost of production is brought down, the share of hydel and coal power is increased in the country’s energy mix, outstanding recoveries are made, and the staff of distribution companies allowed to working independently,” he says.