Context Union Power Ministry claimed the empowerment of the electricity consumers as the “Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020 was promulgated in December 2020.
The Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020 Rules
- Aim: To “empower” consumers with rights to access a continuous supply of quality, reliable electricity.
- Coverage: The rules cover several key areas of power supply to consumers in the country, such as obligations of distribution licensees, metering arrangements, the release of new connections and modifications of existing connections and grievance redressal and compensation mechanisms.
- The rules try to solve the issue of supply quality by giving prominence to national minimum standards for the performance parameters of electricity distribution companies (DISCOMs), without urban-rural distinction, especially for new connections, metering and billing.
- The rules reiterate the need for automatically compensating consumers, but the jury is still out if the rules can enhance the quality of the power supply.
CHALLENGES TO THE RULES
- Lack of accountability: Many states already have similar or upgraded rules but are unable to provide quality supply due to the absence of an accountability mechanism to enforce the existing rules and make DISCOMS accountable.
- There are doubts on the efficacy of automatic compensation payments guarantee to consumers due to inadequate monitoring of the availability of power supply.
- Moreover, such compensation will require serious commitment. For example, according to government reports, rural areas received about 20 hours of supply, in August 2020, but the compensation amount paid was just a few lakhs in each State for the entire year.
- This highlights not only the need for implementation of existing provisions in letter and spirit but also amending them with strong accountability provisions.
- Weakening provisions: The new Rules appear to water down some of the progressive mechanisms that already exist in some of the State regulations.
- The Rules provide a window of 30 days within which the complaints regarding faulty meters should be addressed unlike the span of seven days provided by many states.
- A similar observation can be drawn from the suggested composition of the Consumer Grievance Redressal Forum. The Rules say that the forum — constituted to remedy complaints against DISCOMs as per existing laws and regulations — should be headed by a senior officer of the company.
- This is a regressive provision that would reduce the number of cases that are decided in favour of consumers, thereby eroding its credibility. Maharashtra, Telangana and Bihar, among others, have the option of appointing a retired senior judicial officer or other independent members as the chairperson.
- The Rules do not promote progressive reforms as well: With the promotion of solar roof-top units by the government, there is a guarantee of net metering for a solar rooftop unit less than 10 kW, but there is no clarity if those above 10 kW can also avail net metering. This could lead to a change in regulations in many states based on their own interpretations.
- The possible litigation could impede investment flow to rooftop solar units and would dissuade medium and large consumers to opt for an environment-friendly, cost-effective option.
- Net metering is a mechanism which allows domestic or commercial users who generate their own electricity using solar panels or photovoltaic systems to export their surplus energy back to the grid.
- The process of net metering provides system owners with the opportunity to gain extra revenue by selling their excess power to the grid while also making up for shortfalls via the grid.
NEED FOR COMMITMENT
- In the absence of a strong accountability provision, the consumer protection rules will not ensure better power supply quality.
- The central government can ensure accountability by nudging the State Electricity Regulatory Commissions (SERCs) to examine the Standards of Performance (SoP) reports of DISCOMs and revise their regulations more frequently.
- Also, the SERCs should conduct meetings with the consumers helping them raise their concerns.
- DISCOMs could be directed to ensure automatic metering at least at the 11 kV feeder level, this will help in adequate monitoring of power supply.
- The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) of India could be directed to collect supply quality data from DISCOMs, publicly host them on online portals and prepare analysis reports.
- A regular tariff revision has been pursued by Central agencies. They could also support independent surveys and nudge State agencies to enforce existing SoP regulations.
- The central government could disburse funds for financial assistance programmes based on audited SoP reports.
CONCLUSION With a focused one time effort, electrification drives could provide connections across the country. But ensuring round the clock supply will require continuous efforts and without accountability, consumer compensation is meagre.