Kerala is a state that took precautionary steps sufficiently in advance when the country went into lockdown in the last week of March. The Left front government even declared a financial package for helping people survive the lockdown period which greatly benefited them too. From free ration to community kitchens, the relief measures were instrumental in solving people's hardship to a considerasble extent. All of this deserve to be tagged to Kerala's laudable model in covid prevention.
But in parallel to the same care, many failures also happened, and some of them were corrected as and when they were pointed out. One such decision is the latest decision of the government to help people by relaxations in electricity bills – which had 'shocked' a large section of people. The decision will certainly offer relief to the consumers who felt the shock on receiving hefty bills.
Consumers received the bills for four months of the covid period in one go. Owing to the difficulty in taking meter reading every month as was the practice, bills were prepared based on average consumption. Thus bills for four months would naturally become a burden on the people. But as it happened, when consumers saw the bills for amounts double or more of the expected charges, consumers were in for a surprise. It made big news when even those who used to pay Rs 250-300 monthly, received bills in excess of Rs ten thousand.
The explanation of Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) went along the lines that people were sitting at home during the lockdown which caused higher consumption. But when even those who had left homes after locking them had received bills for 5,000 and 10,000, and when this fact was brought before KSEB, the latter was forced to withdraw such bills. But KSEB still kept on continuing to defend heavier bills and the criticisms about it with the contention of 'excess power consumption during lockdown'. Finally the matter came before the court wherein the unscientific nature of preparing the bill was questioned in the court. In the meantime, it became a hot issue in social media too.
KSEB's exorbitant bills were compared to Modi government's fleecing of customers in fuel prices. It was in this context that the government declared relaxations in excess bills. The amounts in them have been so adjusted now as would benefit 90 lakh domestic consumers. The waived amount is proportionate to the increase, ranging from 20 to 50 per cent of the bill: those who use less than 50 units per month will get a relief of 50 per cent of the difference and those using over 250 units will get a relief of 20 per cent. A facility of paying them in five installments has also been granted. Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has further assured that if any one is unable to pay money by any chance, that would not be used as reason to disconnect the power supply.
Although this package is sure to be comforting to the people, it does not constitute a permanent solution to the problem. As of now, people who have used one unit of energy receive bills at different rates of tariff. Naturally, the concession received will be proportionate to the amount in the excess bills with a corollary that the relief enjoyed by each will be different from one another too. Although they receive some relief, consumers would still be forced to pay excess bills.
This is an anomaly that demands urgent resolution. The theory of 'average unit consumption' is also a hoax. In many areas, right since January there had not been proper meter reading. Instead, an average consumption was arrived at for months preceding April, based on consumption of April, the peak consumption month. And those pre-April months, by KSEB's own admission, are low consumption months - and of complete lockdown. Therefore, KSEB has charged excess for unused electricity. What can this be called other than exploitation? As a matter of fact the issue where governmental intervention was warranted was this.
Unfortunately, what the government has done is to assume for itself the excess burden imposed by KSEB, thus in effect ratifying the justifications given by KSEB. And to this end, the government set aside an outlay of Rs 200 Crore. In that sense, it has to be said that government has not been able to correct KSEB. In fact, power consumption should also have been made free, as an item among lockdown concessions. In the context of the ruling party CPM itself holding strikes with such a demand in other states, the left front government had the moral responsibililty to supply power either free or at least with major concessions. But somehow, that did not happen.
It may be pertinent at this point also to contemplate modernisation of KSEB. Instead of telescopic bill, which is a tool of exploitation, the Board and the government should immediately start thinking about using paid electric meter. The solution to end exploitation and to reduce use of excess power, would also consistin modernisation of the Board.