The Covid-19 pandemic is causing havoc for meter readers
Power distribution companies have continued to overbill their customers, despite several months of complaints and Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission (BERC) directives to investigate and resolve the issue.
Customers of Dhaka Electric Supply Company Ltd (Desco), Dhaka Power Distribution Company Ltd (DPDC), and the Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board (BREB) are now gathering at customer service points with even more complaints.
Representatives of power companies claim there is no such overbilling taking place and customers are merely using more electricity as they are spending more time at home during the pandemic.
Boni Amin, a resident of Dhaka’s Circular Road, said he has received bills that are significantly higher than normal for four consecutive months.
“I usually pay around Tk1,800 for power per month, but I got a bill that was almost three times higher in June,” he said.
Private employee Kamrul Hasan also alleged that he was being overbilled by the power company.
“I am a prepaid meter user but I am still getting exorbitant power bills. How can this be?” he said, visibly frustrated.
Consumers from across the country voiced similar complaints on overbilling by power companies on social media.
Md Hanif of Chandanaish upazila in southern Chittagong in a Facebook post accused the BPDB of serving him a Tk11,492 bill for the past three months starting March, without reading his meter.
“The bill was prepared without reading our meter. The bills showed consumption of 1,200 additional units,” wrote Hanif.
‘Power companies overbilling to make up deficit’
Sources in the power distribution companies said some consumers were being overbilled to “balance” the budget deficit of these companies and the issue will end with the beginning of the new fiscal year.
Some former and existing officials of these distribution companies told this correspondent that these companies lost revenue when the government relaxed penalties for late payment of electricity bills from March till May of this year. Now, these companies were overbilling consumers to make up the deficit.
One official said that these distribution companies overbill consumers by small amounts for three months – April, May and June -- every year. The amount is small enough that it goes unnoticed by many.
However, the issue came into the limelight this time as the additional sum that was to be collected over a span of three months was mistakenly put in a single bill, the source added.
Authorities could not read meters for last three months
Sources said the government asked the authorities to collect bills for the last three months by taking an average from the previous three months, as meter readers have not been allowed inside homes to take readings since the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in the country.
They also said the distribution companies made a mess of the system and came up with ghost billing (overbilling).
Desco Managing Director Kausar Amir said they couldn’t prepare bills for March and April due to the pandemic.
However, he also claimed that bills were issued on the basis of exact meter readings from May, so there is little chance of ghost billing.
Asked if customers were being overbilled to adjust the deficit in the previous fiscal year, he said: “There is no possibility of this happening now. That kind of overbilling is a long gone practice.”
However, an official of a power company said the distribution companies sign annual performance agreements with the government, and they always try to show better performances to justify higher bonuses and recognition in the Power Division.
Usually, each consumer is overcharged by 10-15 units for the last three months of each fiscal year. With the additional revenue, the companies can fill in their costs for system loss and maintain their performance before the government, the official said.
‘Power consumption increased during lockdown’
Bikash Dewan, managing director of DPDC, said they were looking into any overbilling complaints they have received. However, he also claimed the issue was only affecting a small number of people.
“High consumption during lockdown and the hiked power tariff starting from March led to the situation,“ Dewan said.
Many bills showed much lower amounts compared to the electricity consumed, he argued, and said they were cross checking allegations as instructed by the Power Division.
DPDC Executive Director (Operation) ATM Harun-or-Rashid also claimed higher consumption was the reason for the higher-than-usual bills.
“Consumers generally use more electricity during the months of April and May as the weather is hot at that time. Furthermore, people are now staying home more due to the coronavirus crisis and using more electricity,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB) has sent a written complaint to BERC about the ongoing suffering of consumers due to overbilling of electricity.
BERC Chairman Md Abdul Jalil said: “We couldn’t receive the CAB letter, but we have taken the matter into cognizance. All distribution companies have been asked to probe any allegations of overbilling and to solve the issue.”
BREB Chairman Maj Gen (ret) Moin Uddin could not be reached for comment.