Increase font size Decrease font size Reset font size

Arrest for overbilling

HE news that Nepra, the power-sector regulator, has been empowered to `recommend` the arrest of officers in power distribution companies in cases of overbilling may gladden our hearts, but emotions will not solve the problem of transmission and distribution losses. The energy minister proudly declared on the floor of the National Assembly that an amendment to the Nepra Act will now see all complaints of overbilling go directly to the regulator that can recommend arrest if wilful overbilling is discovered. But sadly, the reality is that Nepra is not the right forum to deal with overbilling complaints due to their sheer volume as well as the regulator`s distance from the operating machinery of the distribution companies. Besides, there is the sheer complexity of the complaints involved. The main result of this law will be that hapless consumers will be directed to heavily overburdened Nepra offices and endure prolonged delays in the handling of their complaints in case of overbilling. Beyond that, if the minister genuinely believes that the officers of the distribution companies will rectify their actions for fear of arrest on the recommendation of Nepra, then there remains much for him to learn about the billing and recovery machinery of these companies.

Overbilling has been the bane of many ministers in charge of the power sector. It has its roots in the dysfunctions of the distribution companies, especially the pervasiveness of racl(ets within these organisations. Field officers are given targets to meet when issuing bills, and their incentive is to charge consumers arbitrarily and deal with the complaints later. At present, those complaints land up at the billing office itself, thereby creating an inherent disincentive to push too far when issuing inflated bills in order to meet a target.

But if the new law is passed, consumers will go elsewhere with their complaints, and how far Nepra is able to force field officers to attend hearings and answer for inflated bills will determine how much of a disincentive the new law is to engage in the practice.

Fact of the matter is, the billing machinery of the distribution companies suffers from intrinsic weaknesses. They have a difficult time serving bills to consumers with clout, and the culture within which they operate demands some level of discretionary action.

Until this culture is changed, punitive measures of this sort will only complicate things further.