Opinion

Empowering consumers in power sector

Richa Mishra | Updated on October 02, 2020 Published on October 02, 2020

The new draft rules are a step in the right direction towards rewiring the electricity sector, but implementation holds the key

Remember the 2018 Shahid Kapoor starrer Batti Gul Meter Chalu (Lights off, Meter on), which received mixed reviews from critics. It is a story which all can connect to — inflated electricity bills and the common man’s fight against the system.

The story goes on, even though successive power ministers have spoken about “level playing field” and “consumer redressal”, which have remained just kind words. So, when in October 2019, during a chat with the media RK Singh, Minister of State of Power and New and Renewable Energy, said that the Electricity Act must be a legislation which provides for the rights of all stakeholders and that his team is working on a new Act, our reaction was “not again.”

“Discoms cannot pass on their inefficiencies to consumers by levying higher tariffs. The cross subsidy needs to come down,” the minister stressed. Singh walked the talk. On September 9, 2020, his ministry came out with Draft Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020 seeking comments. The last date for sending comments was September 30. The rules will be finalised after taking into account all suggestions received, the Power Ministry statement said.

“The government intends to bring the consumer into focus and ensure protection of consumer rights in the power sector. Accordingly, the Draft Rules have been prepared prescribing minimum standard of services,” Singh said.

Sounds good. But, how will the government ensure it is implemented in true spirit?

Singh had an answer: “A mechanism has been proposed in the draft for implementation of these rules on the ground. Regulators will oversee the performance of the discoms delivering these rights to consumers. Any violation of consumer rights will lead to penalties on the discoms and payment of compensation to consumers, he added.

It is easier said than done. Yes, it is a good beginning, but difficult to implement. Critics say we are best in making regulations and rules, but when it comes to implementing them, we fumble.

Power issues

The Electricity Act has enough provisions to fix performance standards, but no one took it seriously. The Act is well crafted, but never got implemented the way it was drafted. The Draft Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020 provides for the consumer getting the right to a minimum standard of service for supply of electricity, and discoms have to ensure this. Electricity consumers are the most important stakeholders in the power sector and the sector exists because of them, an official statement issued on September 16 said.

“Having provided access to electricity to all citizens, it is now important to focus on consumer satisfaction. For this, it is imperative to identify the key services, prescribe minimum service levels and standards with respect to these services and recognise them as rights of consumers. With this objective, a draft of Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020 have been prepared for the first time by the government,” the statement read.

The rules propose a simplified procedure for electricity connection — only two documents for connection up to 10 kw and no estimation of demand charges for up to 150 kw to expedite giving connections. It stipulates a period of not more than seven days in metro cities, 15 days in other municipal areas and 30 days in rural areas, to provide new connections and modify existing connections.

Also, 2-5 per cent rebate on serving bills with delay of 60 days or more has been proposed. It also provides for a 24x7 Toll Free Call Centre, mobile applications for common services such as new connections, disconnection, reconnection, shifting of connection, change in name and particulars, load change, replacement of meters, no supply, etc. with facilities for SMS/email alerts, online status tracking and auto escalation.

Besides, the draft also recognises “Prosumers”, the emerging category of consumers. Prosumers are those who consume as well as produce energy —- people who are consumers and have also set up a rooftop unit or solarised their irrigation pumps. They will have the right to produce electricity for self-use and inject the excess into the grid, as prescribed by the State Electricity Regulatory Commission.

For reliability of service, the State Electricity Regulatory Commissions will have to fix average number and duration of outages per consumer per year for discoms.

It gives option to pay bills in cash, cheque, debit cards, net banking etc, but bills of ₹1,000 or more to be paid online. There are provisions related to disconnection, reconnection, meter replacement, billing, payment, etc. The draft also proposes compensation/penalties for delay in service by discoms. The compensation is to be automatic as far as possible, to be passed on in the bill. A Consumer Grievance Redressal Forum with two or three representatives of consumers at various levels starting from the sub-division for ease of consumer grievance redressal has been proposed.

Plug trust issues

While the government has taken a step forward, it also needs to work on improving trust. There definitely is a trust deficit in the sector and this can be done only when there is greater transparency.According to industry, going forward all connections must be given through a meter. Implementing smart meters will help doing meter reading remotely. A fine example of this was in Covid times, where those who were having smart meters got relatively less disruptive bills. The draft also speaks about a redressal system, but to ensure smooth functioning of the system, the government will need to empower these forums to resolve different types of grievances with respect to consumers.

It is a fact that no State can go against the consumer; bijli has won elections. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and currently most discoms are State-owned, except in Delhi (joint venture with the local government), Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Kolkata and Greater Noida which have private players. Therefore, reforms in true sense will unfold when consumers have a choice. And that can be done by separating the wire and supply business of distribution licensees — pending for over five years. This will offer retail consumers’ choice and introduce competition.

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Published on October 02, 2020
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