ISLAMABAD: Just like electricity theft, overbilling by power companies should also be considered a crime, and the government is working on legislation that would make overcharging consumers a criminal offence, Power Minister Awais Leghari told the National Assembly on Tuesday.

The minister was responding to an opposition calling-attention notice regarding “unjustified overbilling, discouraging the people from installing meters and paying bills”.

The minister’s candour was a refreshing change from the stance traditionally adopted by his predecessor Khawaja Asif and Minister of State for Power Abid Sher Ali, who would routinely blame the consumers of badly affected areas for stealing electricity and not paying their bills.

But on Tuesday, Mr Leghari adopted a completely different approach.

“There is no doubt that there are major inefficiencies in our Discos [distribution companies]. Over the past few years, the government has focused on the supply side and we have managed to streamline power generation and transmission issues to such an extent that soon we will have surplus power generation.

Towards the end of session, Capt Safdar demands exclusion of Ahmadis from govt, military service

“The real problem begins after the electricity reaches the distribution companies. Their distribution system and administrative capacities have major flaws and inefficiencies that we will try to tackle and will have concrete recommendations by the end of next week.”

Conceding that overbilling was a major problem, he said that consumers having meters were forced to bear the burden of those who were using electricity without one.

“We are considering legislation to criminalise overbilling or incorrect billing so that not just electricity theft, but overcharging by power companies is also considered a criminal offence. We will soon introduce legislation to this effect,” he told the house.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) MNA Sajid Nawaz, who was one of the movers of the calling-attention notice, pointed out the practice of billing even those consumers who were without meters.

“People are reluctant to install meters in my constituency. I have used the bulk of my [development funds] to get around 7,000-8,000 meters installed. But do you know what happens? Consumers whose meters have not even been connected are receiving bills. They are piling on debt when they don’t even have a connected power meter.”

He complained that poor consumers were being handed over to NAB for failure to pay their bills while big fish get away scot free, and called on the minister to write off the massive debts that were piled on such consumers.

Echoing these concerns, Jamaat-i-Islami’s Sahibzada Tariqullah called for the formation of a special inquiry committee to deal with these issues.

But the newly-appointed minister sought more time, saying: “I only took charge of this ministry three days ago. At least give me a week to review [the Discos’] performance.”

Fata protest

Explaining their decision to wrap up a protest at D-Chowk the previous night, Fata MNA Shahjee Gul Afridi told the National Assembly that the tribesmen who came to Islamabad to press for their demands could have easily breached the high-security Red Zone.

“But we don’t want to damage this country or its institutions. We would never go to such an extent that we would sacrifice our future for the sake of self-interest or to protect our reign,” he said.

He said Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal had told him about the issues facing the country, such as “the defence minister’s statement [about working with the US], and challenges facing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)”.

“We understand these issues, and this is why we went back. We do not want the system to come to any harm,” he said.

“This country belongs to the people, not its rulers. Rulers should govern in line with the people’s wishes,” he said, a thinly-veiled message for the government to stop dragging its feet and pass the long-awaited Fata Reforms Package.

The proposal seeks to extend the jurisdiction of the Peshawar High Court and Supreme Court to the tribal areas, merging them with Khyber Pakhtunkwa and abolishing the British-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR).

Anti-Ahmadi tirade

At the fag end of Tuesday’s session, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law used the floor of the National Assembly to attack the Ahmadi community, calling for a complete ban on their induction in government and military service.

A day earlier, retired Capt Mohammad Safdar’s speech on the same topic was interrupted when a lack of quorum was pointed out. But on Tuesday, he picked up right where he had left off, saying: “The conspiracy against Pakistan started the day Sir Zafarullah was made the [country’s first] foreign minister.”

He demanded that the house pass a resolution to disassociate the name of Nobel laureate Dr Abdus Salam from the Physics Department of Quaid-i-Azam University, because “he is a controversial person who has been declared a kafir under the 1973 Constitution”.

“Intelligence agencies should stop running after politicians. Instead, they should look into our Atomic Energy Commission and see if any apostates are sitting on our nuclear assets,” he said.

The MNA from Mansehra, who was granted bail by an accountability court following his arrest on Monday, said that all entrants to political parties and candidates for the national and provincial assemblies should be made to sign declarations condemning the Ahmadi faith.

Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2017