THE scale of regulatory failure in the country’s power sector is nothing short of catastrophic. According to an inquiry conducted by the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority, every power distribution company operating in the country illegally overcharged citizens in the months of July and August this year — the two months when the sharp, sudden increase in the electricity tariff approved by the PDM government had first made its impact, triggering widespread protests and anger.
The Nepra inquiry establishes that millions of customers in those two months actually faced double jeopardy due not only to the much higher tariff but also to the additional charges arising from electricity distribution companies’ unlawful billing practices.
From unilaterally changing the billing period to improperly accounting for units consumed to issuing ‘on average’ and fake and frivolous ‘detection’ bills to customers, all 11 power distribution companies were found guilty of malpractices on one or more counts.
However, there is a bigger scandal that Nepra completely glossed over in its inquiry report and which points to its own culpability in the matter. The most pervasive violation committed by electricity distribution companies has been in the regulator’s knowledge since at least September 2021.
More than two years ago, an investigative report highlighted in local media uncovered that at least eight of the Discos had been consistently overbilling customers by charging them for more than the allowed 30-day billing period.
The report’s findings had been officially acknowledged by the then energy minister, the PTI’s Hammad Azhar, as well as Nepra, and action had been promised against violators. It is now clear that none was taken: only one distribution company — the privately held K-Electric — seems to have made an effort to reform its billing practices.
With millions of customers overbilled — forced to pay much more than their due in the midst of a crippling economic crisis — it seems that Nepra deserves more blame than anyone else. It must be asked why it failed to take necessary action for two years after it had been established that Discos were violating billing conditions and depriving ordinary citizens of the tariffs to which they were entitled.
While corrective and restorative measures must be taken immediately to compensate consumers who were overcharged, the guilty Discos should also be made to pay individually for their malpractices in proportion to the extent of their violations. The responsible individuals at each of the worst violators need to be made an example of.
Nepra must also order an internal inquiry to determine why its own officials dragged their feet and failed to take appropriate action much earlier, especially when the scale of the problem was already known. This is a failure of epic proportions that must not be allowed to be swept under the carpet.
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2023