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ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly on Monday passed a crucial bill to scale down the independence of the power regulator in tariff setting and assigning it the responsibility to proceed against electricity officials for overbilling consumers.

The hurriedly-moved bill was questioned by opposition parties.

A major change in the proposed law deals with creation of an appellate tribunal under a retired high court judge to refer back National Electricity Power Regulatory Authority (Nepra) decisions for reconsideration.

Under the existing law, Nepra decisions can only be challenged before a high court.

Overbilling made criminal offence

Also, the bill reduced the experience criteria for chairman and members of Nepra from 15-20 years to 10 years and reduced their age limit to 62 years from 65.

The bill has made issuance of wrong electricity bill a criminal offence and empowered Nepra to hear, investigate and award punishment to the guilty officials and refer the case to the law enforcement agency concerned for registration of an FIR.

The Regulation of Generation, Transmission and Distribution of Electric Power (Amendment) Act, 2017 was passed by the assembly after the opposition protested over the government’s move to bring the bill on the floor of the house through a supplementary agenda without allowing a proper debate on it.

Minister for Power Awais Ahmed Leghari, who had tabled the bill, defended the government’s move, saying that overbilling had become a serious problem for the consumers and had the legislation been further delayed, they would have to pay excessive bill for the upcoming month as well.

Moreover, he said, the National Assembly’s standing committee had already deliberated on the bill in detail and the opposition parties had also made valuable changes in the draft through amendments.

The proposed law has suggested imprisonment of up to three years or a fine up to Rs10 million or both for an employee of licensee, any company or any individual who is found guilty of overbilling.

Under the proposed law, which is now required to be passed by the Senate to become an act of parliament, the consumers will not have to lodge their overbilling complaints to the sub-divisional officers, executive engineers or other senior officer in any power distribution company as Nepra alone will deal with such issues. Nepra will be liable to establish offices in all districts across the country where the consumers may submit their complaints in writing. Each complaint will be decided within a period of three months.

The bill seeks establishment of an appellate tribunal which will be headed by a former judge of a high court and comprise members from the four provinces. To assure its independence, the tribunal will have a separate fund and will be empowered to seek external expert opinions, be they national or international. For the sake of efficiency, the decisions of the tribunal would be time bound. However, to maintain regulatory independence, if an appeal is in relation to a tariff setting determination of Nepra, the appellate tribunal will be unable to substitute the determination of Nepra, and instead, remand the matter back to the authority with guidelines.

The bill was introduced by the government in pursuance of the 2013 decision of the Council of Common Interests.

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2017