COVID-19 impact: Commercial offices shut for two months, yet power bill sky high!

Updated: May 28, 2020, 07:12 IST | Hemal Ashar | Mumbai

Consumers shocked by huge bills for commercial premises closed completely since lockdown

Shops in Khar that have been closed for two months. Representation pic/Shadab Khan
Shops in Khar that have been closed for two months. Representation pic/Shadab Khan

When advocate Prerak Choudhary received an electricity bill of R7,042 for his office at Fort, he was dumbfounded. So were many others whose commercial properties have been shut since March due to the COVID-19 lockdown. BEST said the workers couldn't check the meters due to the shutdown and hence, consumers were charged an average amount based on their past bills. Consumers say this is unfair considering they have already suffered losses.

My first instinct on receiving the April bill was to scream 'unfair'. I had shut down my office on March 21 and have not opened the chambers since," said Choudhary, a Colaba resident who practises at the Bombay High Court.

BEST workers repair a cable fault in Worli
BEST workers repair a cable fault in Worli

He added, "I paid my bill online, but on May 20, I shot off an email to the BEST Undertaking's general manager questioning the basis on which the bill was generated." An excerpt from Choudhary's email reads, 'I was shocked and taken aback to see the huge amounts that have been billed to me, regardless of the fact that I have not opened my office during the lockdown period, .i.e. after March 21 [sic].' 'The BEST should adopt a sensitive approach and should not overbill and overcharge its customers. I hope you take this communication positively from a consumer and responsible citizen, and not as a complaint,' he concluded his email to the manager.

Remained shut
The BEST has been sending texts to consumers on the cell phones for online payment of the bills. They read, 'Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, we are unable to read meters or send physical bills. Your estimated bill amount is...'

Kamlakar Shenoy, activist
Kamlakar Shenoy, activist

Suresh Mishra, who has a factory in Byculla, is among those who have received inflated bills for properties shut since the lockdown was announced in March. He said he got a bill of R18,000 for April and roughly the same amount for May "for a place that has not been opened for almost two months". "Usually, when the factory is open, I paid around R25,000 monthly. What I am paying now is too high ac as the place is shut," he added.

'How is the board generating an invoice without reading the meter, based on an assumption made from the previous month's reading?' Mishra asked in an email to the BEST Undertaking.

Pervez Cooper, SoBo resident
Pervez Cooper, SoBo resident

Charge minimal rate
However, Pervez Cooper, a South Mumbai resident who has an office at Grant Road, said he received a small amount of approximately R1,740 as bills through March, April and May. "I have a small bill to pay, but what about other retail stores and establishments in the Grant Road area who have been charged huge amounts? They should have been charged a minimal meter rate and when things got back to normal, the amount could have been adjusted."

"This is daylight robbery. When an establishment has remained shut for over a month, then why should people have to pay such huge amounts? It is absolutely inhuman and unwarranted," Cooper said.

Causing us losses
Activist Kamlakar Shenoy said he had raised the issue with BEST in April itself. 'BEST is duty-bound to raise the actual bills after reading the meter. You are well aware that the electricity consumption [now] may not even be 5 per cent of the average bill due to the lockdown, when consumption and output is zero as business is at a standstill,' he wrote in his email to BEST.

Shenoy told mid-day, "They have been wrongfully raising average bills to extract more money from consumers to cause wrongful losses to them."

What MERC order says
A Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission (MERC) order, issued on May 9, stated: "Considering the lockdown... for excessive recovery from industrial and commercial consumers on account of possibility of higher assessment for a month, only a token amount based on 10 per cent of the average consumption would be billed to premises under lockdown."

BEST version
BEST Deputy Public Relations Officer Manoj Varade said, "An average billing has been done as we don't have the staffers to read the meters due to the lockdown. To the customers writing to us with queries, we have assured that the excess amount will be adjusted, if need be, in future bills. They can pay online or by cheque. Our tariff is on the lower side when compared to other power utility services."

He added that they have deployed all possible services for COVID-19 need. "We have given our 72 mini bus fleet to be used as ambulances on the MCGM's request. We are providing dedicated bus services to hospitals, police and MCGM for transportation of their staff for emergency services."

Varade added, "Even through the lockdown, we have not cut off power supply to anyone, even if have not been able to pay the bills. In fact, there was an electricity issue in a containment zone some time ago, and we immediately fixed it. This is our contribution to the city."

'Charging 10% of average'
An Adani Electricity Mumbai Ltd spokesperson said they are charging 10 per cent of average consumption of past three months to maintain consistency as per MERC directions. Due to COVID-19 lockdown, physical meter reading has not been possible, the spokesperson said. "Once normalcy returns, all amounts will be adjusted. We encourage self-meter reading through various digital mediums such as Elektra Digi Assistant, WhatsApp or SMS in order to avoid such confusion."

Tata Power refused to comment.

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