QUETTA: The sprawling building of the Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) in Quetta is situated on Samungli Road, in the city’s western part.
While going to office in recent weeks, I would regularly find customers gathered at its gate. Over the weeks, during easing of the lockdown, I observed that the number of people was rising.
Unaware of the fact that I would join the crowds at the same gate soon, I stood by their side, my gas bill in my hand.
Like me, most of the gas consumers were there for one reason alone: inflated gas bills during lockdown.
As I was alone at home and would order online food items throughout the period, I was sent a bill of Rs41,240 last month.
The story is more or less the same for other people.
One consumer complains he got a Rs37,000 bill for 65 units
But unfortunately, the consumers, including this reporter, were not allowed inside the SSGC building because of Covid-19 restrictions. Those who knew some bigwig inside were the exception.
One of the names first called out was that of Arif Shah, who was especially asked to come inside by the security guard.
Inadvertently, I revealed that my source of livelihood was the pen and this explains my inability to pay the inflated bill.
As a result of this mistake, I was asked by some white-bearded men to speak to security personnel and assert the media’s power.
Repentantly and reluctantly, I went to the gate to speak to the security man. He brushed me aside before I could show him my press card. Out of embarrassment, I tried to speak to my journalist colleagues on the phone for help, but the calls went unanswered as they sleep in the mornings.
Despite the presence of employees’ vehicles in the parking area, the security man passed on the message: there is no one inside the office and these bills have been coming from Karachi.
Once the office reopens, they will resolve all your problems. One of the men at the gate said: “Bewakoof bana rehey hain (they are befooling us)”.
He had come with two of his bills, working at a private hospital. In one of the bills, he was charged Rs15,000 for 63 units, while in the other, he was charged Rs37,000 for 65 units.
The office finally reopened after two weeks.
Like other visitors, I was sent from one section to another. After mathematical calculations, promises, applications and reassurances, I was kindly shown the door after agreeing to pay the hefty amount on instalments. The first instalment is Rs10,000.
Another visitor that day was Sher Ali, whom I remember as the “man in white” as he wore a white cap and white Shalwar-Kameez.
Although he too is holding a bill in his hand, his smiling face concealed his anxiety.
He had received a bill for Rs58,900 last month.
After running from pillar to post, quite literally, he sat in a corner of the building, his face a picture of exhaustion and resignation.
“I live with my small family,” he told Dawn, cursing the gas utility. “The SSGC has prepared astronomical bills without reading meters during the lockdown.
Sher Ali cannot afford to pay the bill since he makes a living out of odd jobs.
“I have put the bill in my pocket and intend to let it remain there as I am unable to spare such a heavy sum.”
After a few days I spoke to some employees of the SSGC. But they declined to speak on the matter of inflated bills.
However, I was able to get in touch with their media officer, Safdar Hussain. According to him, all bills are based on actual readings and customers have been given the choice to clear the amount in instalments as per Prime Minister Imran Khan’s directives.
He is of the opinion that remaining amounts of these installments during lockdown period are being collected with monthly bills.
Asked about the inflated bills, Mr Hussain claimed that some provisional bills were generated on the basis of last year’s consumption pattern due to difficulties in obtaining meter readings during lockdown. But any excess amount will be adjusted later after noting down meter readings.
The SSGC is named after Sui, a town in Dera Bugti district where gas discovered in 1952. Despite the discovery so long ago, gas arrived in Quetta only in 1985.
A majority of districts in Balochistan still do not have gas supply. During winter the pressure is extremely low and several parts of Quetta suffer from loadshedding.
The issue was taken up in the Balochistan Assembly, where legislators slammed the SSGC for loadshedding and hefty bills. Nothing happened. This is why some consumers I spoke to, including Sher Ali, suggested that cylinders be used for domestic purposes.
After my visit to SSGC office, I noticed half of my shoe’s sole was hanging loose. Although it had already worn out before my SSGC sojourns began, I am sure half the damage was done while treading the grounds of the gas company.
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2020