Debate on about meter reading of lockdown months, computation, relief potential
Geetanjali Minhas | July 29, 2020 | Mumbai
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic aftereffects, as people in Maharashtra face one more problem of high electricity bills, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) leader Raj Thackeray has said the higher charges are ‘unreasonable’ and citizens should not be burdened. Independent activists and experts, meanwhile, are debating the pros and cons of any relief.
Terming the high bills an injustice to the citizens, the MNS leader has urged chief minister (and his estranged cousin) Uddhav Thackeray to look into the matter on a war footing and waive off the increase in the electricity bills ensuring that no one is compelled to pay them in future either.
“The state government should issue an order regarding this issue to Mahavitaran, BEST and other government undertakings. Also, the private electric companies need to be firmly directed to stop this unjustified conduct; otherwise we will be compelled to deal with these private companies. It is a very sensitive issue that we are dealing with and I am sure the government will handle this issue in a compassionate manner,” the MNS leader says in his letter to the chief minister.
The high power bills have led to a huge public outcry with many celebrities tweeting their bills amounts. Earlier this month a division bench of the Bombay High Court disposed off a bunch of PILs seeking relief against excessive electricity bills during the lockdown period, and refused to interfere in the matter. The court directed the petitioners to approach grievance forums as per guidelines under the Maharashtra State Electricity Regulatory Commission (MERC) and also directed electricity providers including Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Limited (MSEDL) to act on complaints at the earliest.
Pratap Hogade, president, Maharashtra State Power Consumers Association, told Governance Now, “I have checked many bills of MSEDCL and nearly all of them are correct, the computer software is also correct. Only the meter reading is fed manually. The problem is people don’t read or understand their bills properly and most people have not sent their reading.”
If the last meter reading was taken on March 15 after which the meter reading for April and May was only taken on June 15, as per regulations, bills for these months have been based on an average, i.e., assessed as per given slabs and clubbed with tariff increase. As these are summer months and weather is hot, due to pandemic triggered lockdown everyone was at home with their fans, tube lights, TV and computers etc working in their rooms, due to which there is an overall increase of 50-70% consumption. Hogade says that bills have not been assessed as per December, January and February as these are winter months and electricity consumption is low.
The tariffs are fixed by the regulatory authority, i.e., MERC, and not the state government. Secondly, says Hogade, the decision for tariff hike was taken on March 30 to be effected from April 1. This tariff increase took place when the nationwide lockdown was already in place. As people did not receive their bills they were not aware of this aspect.
“The regulatory authority could have easily waited for a few months. Not only that, but a wrong press release was issued declaring that the electricity tariff has been decreased by 5-15%. Energy minister Nitin Raut too declared that their government has reduced electricity rates. Later on June 25 he said that high energy bills were because of high energy consumption and higher tariffs.”
Explaining the tariff structure, Hogade says that till March fixed charge was Rs 90 whereas now it has become Rs 100. Within BMC areas, it is Rs 110. The billing charge till March was Rs 1.28 per unit and from April it went up to Rs 1.35 per unit. Energy charge up to 100 units was Rs 3.05 earlier and is now Rs 3.40 per unit. For consumption of 101-300 units the rate was Rs 6.95 earlier and now stands at Rs 7.33. This 16% tariff hike in addition to increase in consumption has led to the increase in the bill amount.
He, however, added that some discrepancies in meter readings and dates have been observed and in case of others who use solar power and have been billed wrongly. “Mostly, 99% bills are correct. The fact is that today people don’t have money for day to day expenditure and future is uncertain. In such a situation the government must give some kind of [relief] package to people for electricity,” says the activist.
Maharashtra has a total of 2.5 crore electricity consumers outside of Mumbai. Four lakh of them are in the below poverty line (BPL) category. As many as 1.39 lakh consumers use up to 100 units, 50 lakh consumers use 100-300 units and 12 lakh consume more than 300 units. More than 92% consume less than 300 units.
Mumbai has 45-50 lakh consumers and also the highest tariff compared to the rest of the country. Electricity is supplied by BSES (BMC), Adani Electricity, Tata Power and Mahavitaran or MSEDCL in areas like in Bhandup, Mulund, Thane and Navi Mumbai and others.
“We are demanding that the government must waive off electricity charges for 300 units for the months of April, May and June due to loss of income. This will amount to Rs 3,800 crore and benefit 1.93 lakh people, with an average of Rs 2,000 for a 3-month bill. This is not a big amount for the government and it must waive it off,” said Hogade.
"The electricity companies have allowed bills to be paid in three interest-free installments. Those paying the entire amount will get a 2% rebate or people can pay ‘under protest’. If the government takes a positive view the excess amount charged will be credited back in consumers’ accounts or people will have to continue to pay their bills. As the economic situation may not improve in the months ahead people may revolt against high bills. The government must help people in times of crisis. It is a welfare state and has to provide money, raise loans, money and give necessary direct benefit to the common man and the industry for revival. As compared to other nations that have contributed 40-80% towards employees’ salaries, our government has contributed zero. On the contrary, it has asked employers not to deduct salaries when they are not doing any business," he added.
However, energy analyst and former MERC-approved consumer representative Ashok Pendse looks at the issue differently. He estimates Mumbai has 50 lakh consumers which includes 30 lakh of Adani, 10 lakh of BEST and about 7-10 lakh of Tata Power. “So we are here talking of more than 2.50 crore consumers of MSEDCL in the rest of the state and 50 lakh of Mumbai which is about 3 crore consumers. To say that 3 crore electricity consumers are being cheated by MSEDCL, BMC, BEST, Adani and Tata is absolutely wrong. Across consumers this is a standard complaint. Even if 0.5% consumers are affected they are going to have problems because incomes are affected.”
Pendse says there are five components of the bill: component cost, variable cost, fuel adjustment charge (FAC), electricity duties (charged by government) and electricity tax. And electricity has two major components. For example, out of a Rs 100 bill, Rs 80 is the cost of power purchase out of which 65% is spent on coal purchase.
“There is no free lunch. Even if the lunch is free who will give it? The fact is that somebody has to pay. Now who is that somebody is the question. In today’s scenario does the government have the facility to pay? I doubt it. BMC revenue stands at only 22% in quarterly comparison; it is paying staff salaries from its fixed deposit reserves. The fact is that everyone is suffering.”
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