Prepaid metering is not a solution to electricity theft

Electricity theft is a huge problem in Pakistan and according to a report by NEPRA, it is a major contributor to our circular debt. However, the recent decision to install pre-paid meters does not seem to be the best solution for this issue

The Economic Coordination Committee, under the chairmanship of Finance Minister Asad Umer, has decided to disconnect electricity connections of consumers who fail to pay bills for three months. Additionally, they have decided to install pre-paid meters all over the country. These decisions sounded like they were made in isolation and that power sector experts were not consulted.

First, the stealing of electricity is a key issue in Pakistan. This is done through direct hooks (installed before a meter) which are also often overlooked by the ground staff of power distribution companies, who facilitate people in this crime. Installing pre-paid meters will not work in this situation, since electricity is stolen through hooks. According to a NEPRA report, Peshawar Electric Supply Company, along with the Hyderabad, Quetta, Sukkur, Tribal and Lahore electric supply companies have the highest percentage of stealing, and are the root cause of the circular debt.

Second, for pre-paid metering, the distribution companies need a billing system (ERP) and customer information systems. These systems are in place at the Islamabad Electric Supply Company (IESCO), but since they do not have issues of electricity theft, spending millions of dollars on pre-paid metering in IESCO will be just a waste of taxpayers’ money.

The Government needs to allocate dedicated police investigative officers and magistrates to the companies where theft is at its peak, and ensure crackdowns to bring this issue to an end. Furthermore, vast majority of the staff working at these distribution companies are also involved in corruption, which facilitates people in stealing electricity, and they need to be brought to justice before the situation can improve.

Compared to the expensive solutions regarding pre-paid metering, there are some other options that can reduce losses and stop people from engaging in electricity theft. The most important step in this regard would be to change the very behaviour of people.

All around the world, markets are closed early to guarantee a positive work-life balance for people. This not only ensures that the public complete their shopping and work on time and get the opportunity to spend quality time with their family and friends, but also helps save electricity.

In Pakistan, market closure is often seen from the perspective of energy saving. Past, governments tried to enforce a policy of early closure of markets, setting a 7 pm deadline, yet traders opposed this policy each time, and the government ended up backtracking. They were not even given the time to try this policy for a trail period that could have convinced shop owners to change their minds. However, with the summer and Eid festivities behind us, the next three months are an ideal time for the current government to form an energy saving plan focused on commercial consumers such as markets, shops, and malls. This will go a long way in improving the current deficit of electricity around the country.

People need to understand the effect of their shopping habits on energy consumption in the country, traders also need to look past their own apprehensions and think of the positive effects that closing markets early will have for Pakistan

The current Government can introduce a policy of 9 pm closure of markets, which would likely make a huge difference. Just imagine an average jewellery shop, with its multiple lights, 3-4 fans, and 2 ACs, and compare it to an average household in the country. There is no wonder then that a generic energy audit of electricity consumption in our markets clearly shows that each shop consumes enough electricity to power multiple houses.

People need to understand the effect of their shopping habits on energy consumption in the country. The traders also need to look past their own apprehensions and think of the positive effects that closing markets early will have for Pakistan. Millions of Pakistanis suffer from the drawbacks of our current energy shortfalls, and this policy has the potential to be a positive step in creating ‘Naya Pakistan’.

The important aspect will be to enforce this policy across the board, from small markets to large shopping malls. If implemented successfully, the current government will achieve a long-term milestone in the power sector. As they say, a megawatt saved, is better than a megawatt generated.

The writer is a media and communications professional. He can be contacted at zia051@gmail.com or Twitter: zia051

Published in Daily Times, September 10th 2018.