When Rohail Sabir, a resident of Karachi’s PiliBhit Cooperative Housing Society Scheme 33, received his electricity bill for March, he was shocked. The amount he owed was 15 times higher than his last bill.
He checked with more than half a dozen neighbors and it appeared that he was not the only one. “Almost everyone I know in the society received inflated bills,” he told SAMAA Money.
Sabir and his neighbours were receiving their bills at a time when K-Electric was calculating them according to a different method because of coronavirus. In order to keep its staff and consumers safe by reducing contact, KE stopped physical meter readings. It switched to charging people by the average billing method. This method is sanctioned in the Consumer Service Manual of the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority that oversees companies like KE.
According to this method, KE can charge customers on whichever bill is higher out of two totals:
1. The amount of the same month from the previous year (in this case March 2019)
2. The average consumption for the customer’s last eleven months
In Sabir’s case though his bill was still higher than either of the two formulae. His meter wasn’t installed until September 2019 so the first method did not apply because there was no bill for March 2019.
His monthly consumption since the meter was installed is around 80 units, but he was billed for 600 units. This is 15 times his previous month’s consumption (40 units) and even higher than his entire power consumption (550 units) on that meter to date.
Rohail Sabir disputed the bill in an email to KE but has yet to see his complaint unresolved. The deadline wasn’t far off and he didn’t want to pay. But not paying would mean risking disconnection so he decided to take the matter up on the company’s Facebook page.
SAMAA Money sent KE a list of questions but the company did not respond. We will include its responses to update this story if and when they reply.
The company has, however, released a statement on its website, stating K-Electric with intimation to NEPRA will bill consumers on the “lower” of the two numbers for April. “The step is in continuation of its earlier efforts to provide relief via due date extension for bills below Rs4,000. This is in addition to the option of deferred payment via instalments over three months to customers consuming less than 300 units a month, which has been announced as part of the “PM relief for COVID-19. Customers are also requested to understand that average billing is an interim measure and will eventually be adjusted in future bills, based on actual meter readings as soon as physical meter reading begins,” it adds.
To check if the Rohail Sabir case was perhaps a one-off, we approached some of the people who had publicly complained of this phenomenon on KE’s social media. We also reached out to other people and studied their bills. Similar discrepancies emerged in many of them. Billed units were higher than those of March 2019 or the last eleven month average.
A cursory scroll down KE’s Twitter and Facebook timelines confirms that Sabir is one of hundreds of other consumers across the city who have flooded the company’s social media pages with complaints of excessive billing and load shedding.
Sabir says the latest he has heard is that the company “will adjust his bill as per the exact units consumed as soon as the situation is normalised”. His neighbors received the same message.
Sabir is educated, works for a large company and knows his rights, but not all of KE’s 2.5 million customers (including marginalized segments of the city) use the internet, let alone email, the method KE tells its customers to use to lodge their complaints. With customer care centers temporarily inaccessible because of the lockdown, these people may not be able to register their complaints.
“Only educated people are able to dispute these fat bills, but those who are uneducated and are not fully aware of their rights are forced to pay higher bills,” said Furqan Nizami, another customer who engaged with KE’s Facebook team to report his concerns.
Tweets of KE’s customers, which also includes the likes of TV actor Saba Hamid, make it clear that they are annoyed with inflated bills in the middle of an extraordinary crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Many people wanted to know why the company doesn’t have an automated reading system.
As the complaints rose, the company stated that it would calculate April’s bills based on the lower of the two methods. It did not clarify what would happen to March’s bills. It did not say if it was going to do this for all customers or only those who had registered complaints. It did not say if it would carry forward amounts for people who may have already paid inaccurate bills.
The Nepra manual, which KE relies on to justify its billing method, says that the company can charge bills based on the higher of the two methods in case of defective meters. The policy document says meter readings should be preferably taken in the presence of customers, and in case of discrepancies, the officer should note, among other things, a customer’s remarks. In Pilibhit Society people were billed in DET mode implying theft.
“In some cases, the billing mode was DET [power theft],” Sabir said, referring to his neighbours. “When no one visited for a meter reading, how did they accuse them of power theft?”
“Accusing customers of kunda (power theft through illegal connection) seems to be KE’s favorite method of inflating its revenue,” said Abdul Wali Khan, recalling the words of the federal ombudsman while hearing his complaint against KE three years ago. If KE doesn’t resolve a dispute, customers can file a complaint with the federal ombudsman.
A resident of Zamanabad, Landhi No. 4, Abdul Wali Khan was accused of this alleged crime four times in the last three years. Khan won each of the four cases because KE could not prove he stole electricity. SAMAA Money has seen documentary evidence of all four cases.
Khan, who won his last case six months ago, says each case would require at least four visits to the ombudsman’s office and five months before a decision. During this time, KE will keep sending you a full bill (including the disputed amount), Khan says. “You have to visit the KE customer center every month to show them that your case is in court, only then they separate the current month’s bill from the total, which is then accepted by the bank.” The only problem is that people who need to work find it extremely hard to do this running around. Furthermore, when the decision is made, KE removes the accusation, the amount is reversed, but there is hardly any compensation for the time and effort or the stress caused.
The latest spike in billing comes ahead of the closing of KE’s financial year, which ends on June 30, 2020. In a January 2017 investigative report, K-Electric: Fattened for sale? Dawn’s Khurram Husain noted how the company used excessive billing to increase revenue ahead of its then-proposed acquisition by Shanghai Electric, a deal which has not come through yet.
Tweets of customers